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Laurie Niles

Chris Thile's mandolin concerto comes to life

January 27, 2010 at 6:16 AM

Chris Thile is a musician who gives himself over fully and completely to his music; to watch him perform seems almost like a séance, where he's simply channeling this thing called "Music."

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra gave Thile's mandolin concerto its California premiere last weekend, something I'd been anticipating ever since talking with Chris before the concerto's world premiere with the Colorado Symphony in September.

For his mandolin concerto ("Ad Astra per Alas Porci" – "To the stars on the wings of a pig."), Thile said he didn't want to be different for the sake of being different. "The composer's duty is to be conjuring a sense of inevitability," Thile said. "Even if something is moving you intellectually, it needs to be moving your body."

Chris Thile and Laurie Niles
Thile and Laurie Niles, after the show

And clearly, Thile was feeling every ounce of this concerto; he was "grooving" with the orchestra, whether he was playing or not. The music seemed a landscape completely of Thile's own making; meandering in both rhythm and pitch, but always intentional and somehow natural. In the first movement, his lightning-fast mandolin runs spilled into the first violin section, a spiccato run rather fast for a whole section, but well-done, LACO violins. 'Does he actually have six fingers?' I wondered at one point; they moved fast enough to give that illusion. As the movement progressed, many ideas came in and out of focus: a swirly woodwind statement settled into something waltz-like, with gentle mandolin accompaniment, then just as it became recognizable, it morphed into something else.

The second movement reminded me that here in the 21st century, the sounds of birds and horse hooves no longer dominate our environment. If we take in our true sonic world, we might hear it in way Chris does; his inspiration for this movement was the sound of a New York City F train. Specifically, the whine of the train moving forward. As it picks up speed, it hits three ascending notes, settling into a faster speed, where it oscillates between two high notes. "It does it in retrograde when you slow back down," Thile explained at the pre-concert lecture, laughing. The third movement seemed the most tightly woven of them all, the orchestra and mandolin more integrated.

For an encore, Thile played Bach's D minor Gigue. Anyone who has played Bach knows that it is quite a feat to work this piece to the point where the notes spill like water, like a fast-moving stream. It doesn't feel frantic or rushed; it feels inevitable. The speed of water is just the speed of water. Somehow his Gigue, too fast for human feet, still dances.

"It took Bach for me to figure out there was something mighty and substantial in classical music," Thile said before the concert, sitting with mandolin in hand, his left foot resting over his right, alongside conductor Jeffrey Kahane. "It always seemed to me that it wasn't grooving – which is very simplistic. It grooves, in a different way. To me, it was a revelation; it was mesmerizing to my core."

The desire to learn Bach's solo Sonatas and Partitas for violin pushed Thile to teach himself to read music, he said, as learning Bach by ear "was slow-going."

"It wasn't enough to listen and enjoy," Thile said of the Bach. He was like a kid who wants to take apart the stereo and see how it works, down to the last part. "Whenever you do that, the stereo's not quite the same when you put it back together."

For his second encore, Thile played – and sang – Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground from his album How To Grow A Woman From The Ground.

I'm hoping for a recording of Thile's mandolin concerto (and his Bach!) It deserves a lot more than one listen. I can only say that I hope that more music can be written with this kind of integrity. We don't need more "PhD music" for our orchestras; we need the kind of music that truly makes us look – and listen – to our modern world, to hear it anew and to feel it more fully.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on January 27, 2010 at 9:02 AM

Laurie, thanks for another great interview. I love the photo. You and Chris look like you were having fun together.

Chris Thile is a musician of immense and diverse talents. I don't know what you mean by "PhD music," but I suppose it would include Bach. Here Chris plays Bach's Prelude in E Major as if it were written specifically for the mandolin. His performance reminds me of Segovia's performances of his own transcriptions of some of Bach's works. A commercial note: This clip is from the DVD "Bach and Friends," available this month at

The following clip shows him as a singer of a gentle love song, Sweet Afton, with accompaniment by mandolin (played by Chris himself), violin, and cittern (a traditional Celtic plucked instrument).

Here he is playing one of the pieces you discussed, Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground. It sounds just like your description of it.

I'm really impressed with his ability to play so many different kinds of music so well. You were very lucky to hear him live in concert. I thank you again for your interview and descriptions of his music.

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