March 22 wasn't the first time Mike Marshall and Chris Thile have played the Savannah Music Festival, and hopefully, it will not be the last time they play a duet in Savannah.
To the fortune of patrons, the reunion was scheduled at the Morris Center, in the historic Trustees' Garden. An intimate space with the feel of a cathedral, the room was packed wall to wall.
After an elaborate bowing procession, of which Thile later remarked, "We worked really hard on that," Marshall and Thile played an 80-minute set that seemed to encompass every tonal sound that a mandolin and a mandocello are capable of making.
From the first three notes played by Thile, the audience seemed stifled into quiet repose and awe. The sheer virtuosity of these two musicians was similar to, I assume, watching Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel.
The only exception to the audience's stoic viewing were the laughs and loud cheers between songs. The duo's obvious friendship and enchanting on-stage exchanges were as delightful as the music they made together.
After two songs, Thile showed the audience the set list, which was a simple piece of notebook paper with lots of writing and what seemed to be drawings. He held up the paper and pointed to the first two songs, which were unreadable from even a foot away, and said, "This is what we just played."
It was clear from the beginning this concert was less of a recital, which the setting seemed to invoke, and more closely related to a rehearsal in which two old chums were playing music they've spent a lifetime learning, playing and loving.
The set list spanned 10 or 12 songs, (I honestly, sorry for the cliche, got lost in the music and quit counting), and included an array of mandolin tunes influenced by a myriad of genres. Some they had written, some they had not.
Midway through, Marshall traded his mandolin for what Thile called, "A bigger mandolin," his mandocello. Which, essentially, is a bigger mandolin with a deeper timbre, like a cello.
Marshall remarked, "... Here's something from what is arguably everyone's favorite composer, J.S. Bach," to a responsive and delighted crowd. The duo charted two Bach partitas for the set, which were handled with the dedication of two persons engrossed by a love of music.
One would think, as I did, that it couldn't get much better. And then, Marshall recanted some of Thile's accolades as a string player, including a series of Bach concertos recording in 2009 on a mandolin.
"... The violin is tuned the same as a mandolin; it seems this would work," Marshall said to laughs. "Since this piece is for a solo violin, I just didn't want to sit here, so I wrote my own part."
After Marshall's remarks and the audiences cheers, he clasped his hands in a prayer format and, I assume, asked the music gods for forgiveness or help.
His addendum was seamless and inspiring, even to trained ears. It seems quite plausible that if you traded Thile's mandolin for a violin and Marshall's mandocello for a cello, the piece, with Marshall's addition, would play the loudest classical music critic into stillness.
They capped the show with a dance number: A Bulgarian dance tune in 25/16 time signature. After the show's advantageous set, it seemed wonderfully fitting.
Not even the rain could dull the delight of everyone who left this show.