CAMBRIDGE — There was $1.1 million worth of talent on stage on Sunday night. That’s the approximate combined value of the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowships awarded to bassist Edgar Meyer (2002) and mandolinist Chris Thile (2012), who have been working together since 2003. Each has been lauded for taking inspiration from a wide array of musical traditions.
Listening to them perform at a sold-out Sanders Theatre, on a tour supporting their excellent new album, “Bass and Mandolin,” you could pick out many of the styles from which each draws inspiration: the open harmonies of bluegrass, the instrumental virtuosity of classical music, the heartfelt melodicism of pop, the structured improvisation of jazz.
But none of that hits on what really makes them click as a duo: a remarkable musical fluidity and ease, both in their individual playing (they wear their virtuoso abilities lightly) and in the way they work together, each shifting effortlessly from foreground to background to make space for the other’s voice. The way they read each other bespeaks more than a decade of work together.
Most of the material they played on Sunday was co-written by the pair, and took full advantage of this rapport. The opener, “Why Only One?,” boasted a slyly funky melody and Meyer’s fluency in double and triple stops, providing a broad harmonic palette for Thile’s soloing. “Farmer and the Duck” featured a rhythmic break so foursquare it was impossible not to laugh. A few Bach selections — both have recorded his music — showed exquisite phrasing and balancing of the voices. “I’ll Remember for You,” with Thile on guitar and Meyer on piano, was astonishingly delicate and introspective.
They’re also fun, if slightly corny, entertainers. “Off to a strong start banter-wise, Edgar,” Thile remarked when Meyer had a tongue-tied moment at the microphone; Meyer’s deadpan reply: “Keep supporting the people you work with, Chris.” In the second set they played an abstract new song, for which they’re soliciting a new title from the audience at each show. Sunday’s winner: “Wicked Pissah.” Boston Strong indeed.
The concert’s best moments were the songs that built organically to something explosive. There were daredevil runs and scorching solos from each player in “Fence Post in the Front Yard” and “Tarnation,” all of which they made look like nothing special. The same was true of the sole encore, the first movement of Meyer’s “Concert Duo for Violin and Double Bass,” which may have been the most complete expression of what this remarkable duo can achieve.David Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.