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Chris Thile and the Winston-Salem Symphony shine

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Thursday March 11, 2010

from Winston-Salem Journal

Impressive: Mandolinist Chris Thile and the Winston-Salem Symphony shine
By Ken Keuffel

Occasionally, an artist comes along to remind us of how exciting classical music’s past must have been — and how promising its future can be.

Such a person is Chris Thile, the mandolinist of Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers fame whose contributions in classical music are quickly coming to equal those he has made in bluegrass. He will make his final appearance in the Stevens Center on Tuesday, teaming up with the Winston-Salem Symphony in the North Carolina premiere of his Concerto for Mandolin and Orchestra: Ad astra per alas porci (to the sky on the wings of a pig).

Back in the day, it was not uncommon for a composer of a concerto to solo in the first performances of it. And when he did, he often improvised in the concerto’s cadenzas or unaccompanied sections. The beloved piano concertos by such composers as Mozart and Beethoven started in just this fashion.

Classical music’s division of labor is now much stricter. One person composes a concerto, assuming it has not already been written, and another serves as the soloist.

After hearing yesterday’s performance, which Robert Moody conducted, I’ve become an even stronger fan of the composer-musician scenario. I was impressed, not only with Thile’s piece and his frighteningly high-level musicianship but also with the two works that preceded the Thile-symphony collaboration: Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major and Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings.

The excellent soloists in the Brandenburg concerto, all symphony members, played with elegance and/or excitement. They included violinist Fabrice Dharamraj, flutist Kathryn Levy, oboist Amanda LaBrecque and trumpeter Anita Cirba, who drew on her virtuosity to conquer the almost inhuman challenges of her part with precision and superwoman athleticism.

Thile’s mandolin concerto is the first concerto he has written. It had its world premiere this past September with the Colorado Symphony. It was commissioned by the Winston-Salem Symphony and six other orchestras as part of a “consortium” cost-sharing arrangement. It’s in three movements: The first is titled “A March, A Waltz and A Jig”; the second “Air on the F Train”; the third “The Fifth Glass.”

David Levy’s program notes describe Thile’s concerto “an authentic synthesis that draws on everything (Thile) considers good in music.” I agree, though there were only hints of bluegrass. Jazz emerged as a more powerful influence in an often driving, modern-sounding orchestration distinguished by a finely crafted combination of counterpoint, mixed meters and attractive writing for winds. It seemed that Thile’s personality and lively physical movements informed every phrase and the sometimes-deliberate way a structure would emerge.

The mandolin, with its high-pitched soft and thin sounds, is not exactly the instrument of choice for a concerto, which is a piece for a solo instrument or instruments and orchestra. Even when a microphone is placed in front of the mandolin, as it was yesterday, the mighty orchestra can easily overwhelm or obscure it. Thile’s mandolin concerto came off through his talents and force of will — particularly in the ferocious way he attacked his solos. His improvisations dazzled.

Thile stunned the audience with his account of two unaccompanied encores: a mandolin version of the prelude of Bach’s E-Major Partita for solo violin and a Jimmie Rodgers country tune. He also excelled as a comic.

Read the full article here