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Review: Chris Thile holds court with Bach and Louvin Brothers in solo mandolin concert at Emory

Chris Thile

Classical instrumentalists who came up through the conservatory system are somewhat used to being the only musicians onstage during a recital. Whether performing modern or baroque music, there’s a wealth of solo composition. When performing solo, there’s room to take liberties with the written music, but there are also no accompanists to help smooth out a musical false step.

Chris Thile, a bluegrass mandolin player turned minor rock star, knows what that’s like. The last day of the first-annual Thile-created holiday Bachtoberfest occurred last Saturday (the 33rd day of the celebration) at Emory’s Schwartz Center for Performing Arts, where he performed solo works from his latest all-Bach disc as well as a smattering of bluegrass-rock-folk-classical compositions. Instead of being buried behind sheet music, Thile performed Bach works from his first all-classical CD from memory, swaying as the music ebbed and flowed.

Thile is not a classical musician in the rigid, conservatory sense of the word; he learned these Bach pieces simply because he liked playing them. However, he has performed in numerous musical configurations over the years running the gamut of musical genres, and he seems as comfortable playing on a stage with only his mandolin and a microphone as he does with a full band. But when performing with the Punch Brothers, Thile has approached each night as a regular concert experience — there’s a set list, and the songs give the evening a cohesive flow, but it’s very much a group of musicians playing for an audience. On Saturday, Thile gave a performance that exhibited his range as a mandolin technician, a musician, a composer and a jokester, engaging the crowd with practiced, but insightful, banter.

After dedicating the first piece of the evening to Zak McConnell, the mandolin leader of Dahlonega-based Fiddle Heads, who recently died at the age of 26, Thile eased into the opening chord to the “Adagio” movement of Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in G minor. The introspective piece showed Thile to be an expressive player with exacting, flawless technique. For someone who had played the Bach countless times on this most recent tour, there was nothing automatic or stilted about the performance, and Thile still expressed joy in the music through his playing. In fact, all of the Bach works performed were imbued with passion — the slow, sometimes somber, movements were lyrical without being overly dramatic, and the fast movements were impressive not for only for Thile’s incredible finger dexterity but also for the sheer musicality of his playing.

Thile has been performing bits of Bach during shows with the Punch Brothers, and hearing select movements — even the entire Partita No. 1 in B Minor, with his incredibly fast reading of the Presto movement — in a solo recital setting gave the pieces, and his expert playing of them, more weight. When the music called for lowered dynamics, he played with such ease, concentration and intensity that these were even more impressive than the bursts of finger-twisting melodic lines.

Rarely have I seen an audience so eager to dish out rousing ovations after every single composition.

On Saturday, Bach would have been enough, but to break up the nearly two-hour, intermission-less performance (“Some people are just now realizing just how much mandolin they’re in for,” Thile said early in the evening.), he gave the audience a few blocks of up-tempo songs, comprised of both old and new, borrowed and self-composed tunes. The first of this tune block — and one of the best — featured the Louvin Brother’s “Broadminded,” a sampling of Thile’s own multi-movement work “The Blind Leading the Blind,” and the traditional “Rabbit in a Log” smashed together in a jam band, segue form after the G minor Adagio.

With the non-classical tunes, Thile took wide-reaching, disjunct solos that built up into a flurry of percussive chords or died down into a single melodic line. But when improvising, though he had no accompanists to tie him to a musical structure, Thile kept the beat moving forward, paying attention to rhythm as much as the notes he was playing.

Thile plays like a true virtuoso — each plucked note seems like the easiest thing in the world — yet everything is performed with a certain respect for the music. Even his joke-like songs, such as the brilliant “If You’re Going To Leave Me (Set Me Up With One Of Your Friends)” and his love letter about mandolin performance, are serious and well-crafted compositions.

Upon hearing Thile solo, and the sheer amount of music he can create all by himself, it was hard to wish for anything more. But the Punch Brothers will likely be in Atlanta come touring season, and the chance to see Thile in a different context, surrounded by top-tier instrumentalists, is definitely a show not to be missed.