Chris Thile offers Bach and more - on mandolin

Chris Thile is one of several composer/performers whose work is based in American vernacular genres but who are expanding into more classical forms.
Chris Thile is one of several composer/performers whose work is based in American vernacular genres but who are expanding into more classical forms. (BRANTLEY GUTIERREZ)
Posted: October 27, 2013

PRINCETON - The image of Chris Thile playing Bach, alone on the Richardson Auditorium stage on Thursday, won't go away anytime soon. Here was a lanky, slightly crooked, fashionably rumpled 32-year-old guy with all his physicality funneled into a relatively small mandolin, negotiating the considerable intricacies of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin .

A tour de force, obviously. But Thile also brought an element of loneliness to Bach seldom heard behind all the music's compositional exuberance. Sometimes if you peer deeply into Bach, you'll find pretty much everything. And Thile was indeed peering.

Looking around at the grandeur of the auditorium, he said, "I always wanted to play Bach in a castle," and later suggested that for future tours, he'd stay there and import audiences to Princeton.

This American original, also heard Wednesday at the Kimmel Center, is one of several composer/performers whose music is based in American vernacular genres, from bluegrass to Civil War songs, but who are expanding into more classical platforms.

The meeting point of all these musical currents is his charming inquisitiveness, plus the fact that his mandolin is clearly an extension of his arms. Just as religion underlies Bach's works, Thile's own songs are full of biblical references ("Daughters of Eve") and preoccupation with sin - though not often following typical song forms. He'll go off on a long instrumental passage and fluidly morph into a Bach-authored movement almost before you notice.

And if there's one composer who accommodates such transcription, it's Bach in these solo violin works. With Thile's chops, he can make his plucked instrument sing as well as any violin, though he has to work harder to create enough high-velocity notes to form a horizontal melodic line. His range of touch, texture, color, and dynamics is remarkable coming from a small, often-marginalized instrument.

Mostly, Thile presented isolated movements, though near the end of the two-hour show he played the Partita for solo violin in B minor complete. A bit more than his vernacular audience bargained for? All were on their feet at the end.

And what a pleasantly motley crowd it was. Presented by Princeton University Concerts in collaboration with the McCarter Theatre, the concert had older classical types, young students, and earthier rootsy types in adjacent seats. We should all mingle like this more often.


dstearns@phillynews.com.

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