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Chris Thile: A Mandolinist, and a Mozartean

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Friday September 11, 2009

from The Denver Post

A Mandolinist, and a Mozartean
Chris Thile’s concerto gets a world premiere tonight with the CSO
By Kyle MacMillan

Chris Thile does not try to hide his nervousness about tonight’s world premiere of his first orchestral work. The star mandolinist is all too aware of the scores of schmaltzy, if not downright failed, attempts by popular performers to take on classical music. But Thile’s “Mandolin Concerto (Ad astra per alia porci),” is no vanity project. He wants it to be taken seriously as a viable, substantial piece of classical music. And music director Jeffrey Kahane, who will lead Thile and the Colorado Symphony in the debut, believes the 28-year-old Brooklyn composer has pulled it off.

“This is not a bluegrass musician who is dabbling in classical music,” said Kahane, who insists it is not hyperbole to describe him as Mozartean in terms of his musical abilities.

“This is a great musician — one of the really towering musical minds.”

Thile (pronounced THEE-lee) won the National Mandolin Championship at age 12. He is best known for his 15 years with Nickel Creek. The bluegrass band sold 2 million records and in 2002 won a Grammy Award. But his longtime association with bluegrass might actually be misleading when it comes to this concerto, which has little directly to do with that folk idiom.

“If anyone recognizes me from the stuff I did with Nickel Creek, I think this is going to sound like it’s from Mars,” he said.

It is Thile as musical polyglot (he has performed everything from Bach Partitas to covers of Radiohead and the Beatles) and classical enthusiast that most come to bear on this piece. The mandolinist has developed a self-described obsession with historical composers, such as Ludwig van Beethoven and Gustav Mahler, as well as contemporary figures such as Thomas Ades. Thile has been especially inspired by Bela Bartok, a pre-World War II Hungarian composer who collected folk songs and often incorporated them in his harmonically advanced, avant-garde works.

“I think that fellow really hit the nail on the head as far as a meaningful synthesis of folk and formal music, to where it’s even silly to talk about them being different,” he said.

This new concerto, which is expected to run 21-23 minutes, has a conventional concerto form with three movements.

“It’s tonal, but I would say that it is precariously so.” he said. “It’s tottering on the edge of tonality and atonality.”

Or put differently, it shows Thile’s penchant for harmony from the late Romantic period that is “lovingly destroyed.” Reflecting his belief that music can come from anywhere, the theme for the slow second movement is a transcription of the sound made by the recently added subway trains of New York’s F line.

“They’re sort of unknowingly singing this lonesome song,” he said. “I became aware of it instantly and thought it was really beautiful and really sad. So, I wrote it down.”

Another aspect of the piece, of course, is showcasing the distinctive timbre and rhythmic clarity of the mandolin, which was highlighted in baroque concertos of Antonio Vivaldi and others but has made only scattered appearances in classical works since. Thile has tried his hand at classical composition twice before. He wrote a duet that was premiered during a 2007 tour by pianist Emanuel Ax and bassist Edgar Meyer. He also wrote a four-movement chamber work, “The Blind Leaving the Blind,” for Punch Brothers, his latest band. The cross-genre quintet includes fiddle, guitar, banjo and bass. The group premiered the work as part of composer John Adams’ In Your Festival in 2007 at Carnegie Hall and later recorded it for Nonesuch Records.

Read the full article here