When you pair two MacArthur “genius grant” winners onstage, you expect a certain level of quality.
What you don’t necessarily expect is fun.
After all, the MacArthur Fellowship, a grant so prestigious you cannot apply for it, is serious business. According to the MacArthur website, the selection criteria include “exceptional creativity,” “significant achievement” and “manifest promise.”
All excellent qualities — but none of them guarantees a laugh. Which is what made the sheer fun of Saturday’s collaboration between bassist Edgar Meyer and mandolin player Chris Thile so refreshing.
The Modlin Center for the Arts hosted Meyer, a classically trained bass virtuoso and 2002 MacArthur Fellow, and Thile, a bluegrass superstar and 2012 MacArthur Fellow. The collaboration made tenuous sense on paper (each artist has done some work in the other’s genre) and every kind of sense in person, as the chemistry between the two musicians became evident.
Meyer was the elephant — his bass lumbers, stomps and dances with an almost shocking grace. Thile, on the mandolin, had a mouse-like energy, agile and tireless. The two performed half-facing each other, alone onstage save for a gaggle of sound equipment. There were no music stands, no printed score and no concert program.
Who needs any of that?
Meyer and Thile lit into their music with precision and — better than precision — gusto. Save for a couple of “cover songs” by the eminently coverable Johann Sebastian Bach, the music was original, a Vitamix blend of bluegrass, classical, folk and jazz. It was showman’s music, full of sleights-of-hand and rabbits-in-hats.
And this was a showman’s show. Meyer and Thile elicited more genuine laughs from the audience than any concert of double bass and mandolin has a right to — using physical comedy, snappy one-liners, even audience participation, asking each city on their current tour to name an untitled offering. (Richmond’s vote, for the record, was “Creepy Uncle.”)
Then there was the explanation of how the evocatively titled pieces “Ham and Cheese,” “Tuesday” and “This is the Pig” came to be named.
Or lack of explanation.
“Most of our song titles are references to things we can’t explain in mixed company,” Thile deadpanned.
Laughter, especially when mated with first-class music-making, has a genius of its own.