Ignore the Label 

Top-notch trio breaks down walls dividing genres

Top-notch trio breaks down walls dividing genres

Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Mark O’Connor

8 p.m. March 30

Grand Ole Opry House

For ticket info, call 255-9600

Dividing music into genres is convenient—it allows music to be easily found in a record store. But labeling recovd bins is not easy anymore—the term ”crossover“ gets less and less precise. Where do you put Shania Twain? Or Andrea Bocelli?

More to the point, musical genres have nothing to do with what finally matters—the sounds, the ”sweet vibrations“ that uplift the heart and nourish the soul. And in this millennial age, these may come in unexpected combinations, from unexpected places. That is likely to happen on Thursday, when Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Mark O’Connor play at the Grand Ole Opry House in the season finale of the Ryman’s SunTrust Classical Concert Series. Promoters are calling this concert ”The Classical Event of the Season,“ and indeed, it might be.

In a sense, this concert brings the Ryman full circle, and at the same time emblematizes the yeasty morphing going on in music right now. Early in its history, the Ryman hosted legendary classical performers, including operatic tenor Enrico Caruso and pianist Ignace Paderewski. Then Caruso’s grand opera was displaced for some decades by the live country-music radio broadcast that poked fun at the uptown genre’s name. But for a couple years now, the Ryman has been hosting first-class ”serious“ music again, and this season’s SunTrust Classical Series has been a dazzler. It’s right that the season finale should be a program displaying the highest level of musicianship.

Of the evening’s three performers, cellist Yo-Yo Ma is the best known among classical fans. He has recorded brilliant performances of the entire set of J.S. Bach’s suites for unaccompanied cello. This is surely the Super Bowl for a cellist, where the player has to face Bach’s pitilessly bravura musical imagination absolutely on his own. Yo-Yo Ma has earned his ring. He remains one of the world’s most active cellists—performing with major orchestras, giving recitals, and playing with chamber ensembles all over the planet. He has recorded from the entire range of classical cello repertory, and all his recent albums have quickly become Billboard best sellers, remaining in the top 15 for long stretches; he often has as many as four titles on the charts at once.

Though Ma is the best known of the three, maybe the consummate musician is contrabassist Edgar Meyer. One critic has called him ”quite simply, the best bassist alive.“ Since 1994, he has been a member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York City. He is currently a visiting professor of double bass at London’s Royal Academy of Music. He plays Bach, and Beethoven, and Brahms, and Berg, and Bartók. But he has also recorded with Vince Gill, Hank Williams Jr., Garth Brooks, and Reba McEntire, among lots of others.

So far the least known of the three—though that is rapidly changing—is Mark O’Connor, whose own work represents a perfect instance of musical intermarriage. O’Connor has turned Appalachian fiddle music into a Fiddle Concerto No. 1 that has become, with more than 150 performances, the most-played modern violin concerto. His first release for the Sony Classical label, recorded with Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer, is called Appalachia Waltz; most of the CD’s music was composed or arranged by O’Connor. This album has been on the Billboard charts for more than two years.

This Thursday’s performance is part of a promotional tour called Appalachian Journey. The performance is advertised as a ”seamless invention“ combining a variety of musical idioms, from American string-band music to a baroque violin concerto. This threesome, some say, shows us ”the new face of classical music.“ Certainly they show us a fresh face. Most important of all, maybe, they play whatever they play with masterful virtuosity, unsurpassed musicianship, and infectious élan. This might well be the classical event of the season.

Versatile voices

A couple decades ago, you could go all your life and never hear really good music, vocal or instrumental. You might never hear a good solo voice, or choir, or a good piano played really well. This was true even if you heard a symphony orchestra or a civic chorus. Recordings did not help—what came out of a speaker was a disfigured version of what was not very good in the first place.

But that has changed. Though acoustic sounds in a good space still have a unique power, at least for purists, even purists admit that nowadays it’s hard to tell when it’s Memorex. Now everybody can hear the best that has been played and sung in the world. That best becomes the standard: A small a cappella vocal ensemble is measured against performers like the Tallis Scholars or the Anonymous Four, both groups distillations of collaborative excellence.

By that standard, Nashville has more than one good vocal ensemble—but not many more. The Nashville Chamber Singers, a mixed choir of about 28 voices led by director/founder Angela Tipps, is among them. Only a few years old, this ensemble is not yet widely known, but it should be. Its next outing, taking place 3 p.m. this Sunday at Christ the King Church, offers a chance to find out why.

Christ the King is a good venue for the ensemble’s acoustic sound. The program is a set of madrigals—secular choral songs—reaching from about 1500 to 1995, sung in Latin, French, and English. Madrigals first appeared in 13th-century Italy and for nearly 300 years were unaccompanied. From the start, madrigals were often somebody-done-somebody-wrong songs, and many still are. But from the start, texts were varied, and since the 18th century sometimes accompanied.

Sunday’s program looks very attractive, partly because it is so varied. The energetic textures of the early madrigalists contrast nicely with the subtle impressionism of Claude Debussy’s 20th-century setting of three 15th-century French chansons; with the substantial, innovative, and tough-minded work of the American Emma Lou Diemer (b. 1927); and with a jazz-flavored gift by Britisher John Rutter (b. 1945) to jazz pianist George Shearing on his 75th birthday in 1995. Rutter, best known for sacred choral music, can write convincingly in nearly any idiom. In three ”Birthday Songs“ he emulates Shearing’s zesty dissonance in a score for SATB chorus—and double bass!

A famous poet once described a lovely country girl as ”a violet by a mossy stone/Half hidden from the eye.“ The Nashville Chamber Singers are like that girl—except that they’re half-hidden from the ear. The listeners who know them, however, know what a treasure they are.

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