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by Steve Osborn
Sunday, January 13, 2019
Under its vibrant new music director, Francesco Lecce-Chong, the Santa Rosa Symphony this past Sunday offered a nearly perfect afternoon of Mozart (Symphony No. 40) and Mahler (Symphony No. 4). While the two works share a common digit, the only element uniting them is genius. They made for a dazzlin...
by Abby Wasserman
Sunday, January 13, 2019
In its third concert of the season the Mill Valley Chamber Music Society Jan. 13 presented Russian virtuoso Nikolay Khozyainov. His intelligent and sensitive interpretations, masterful pedal work, and virtuoso technique left the near-capacity audience in Mt. Tamalpais Methodist Church astounded and ...
by Terry McNeill
Thursday, January 10, 2019
Cellist Edward Arron has been a welcome artist at the Music at Oakmont series, and after his Jan. 10 recital it’s easy to understand his popularity. His artistry is a complete package, with potent instrumental technique wedded to integral musical conceptions. In a nearly flawless concert with pian...
Choral and Vocal
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, December 15, 2018
Each holiday season when a Classical Sonoma reviewer is assigned to cover a concert with Handel’s seminal Oratorio The Messiah, the question arises about what new commentary can possibly apply to the often performed choral work. Well, if it’s the American Bach Soloists performing the piece, written...
by Abby Wasserman
Wednesday, December 05, 2018
A doomed royal love affair, the theme of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, was brought to lovely life at Sonoma State University Dec. 5 in the school’s Schroeder Hall. Conducted by faculty member Zachary Gordin, who also played continuo, the performance was only the second opera production presented by the...
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, December 02, 2018
Antlers are typical headgear during the holiday season, but the ushers and one bassist at the Santa Rosa Symphony concert on Dec. 2 sported apples atop their heads. The red fruits were festive but perplexing until the orchestra began Rossini’s “William Tell” overture, at which point even the dull-wi...
by Art Hofmann
Sunday, November 18, 2018
The audience at the Sonoma County Philharmonic’s Nov. 18 concert was warned at the outset that the old Santa Rosa High School auditorium boiler was turned off, and there was a steady eminently audible tone in the hall. Conductor Norman Gamboa said the tone was an A, a high one. But there it was, a...
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, November 11, 2018
In a splendid concert Nov. 11 the Music Teachers Association of California, Sonoma County Chapter, presented their sixth annual benefit concert before 40 avid listeners in the Santa Rosa home of Helen Howard and Robert Yeats. Highlights of the performances, involving eight musicians in various perf...
by Terry McNeill
Friday, November 09, 2018
Returning to Weill Hall following a fire-related recital cancellation in 2017, pianist Peter Serkin programmed just three works in his Nov. 7 concert, three masterworks that challenged both artist and audience alike. It needs to be said at the outset that Mr. Serkin takes a decidedly non-standard a...
by Terry McNeill
Wednesday, November 07, 2018
Familiarity in chamber music often evokes warm appreciation, and it was thus Nov. 7 when the Chicago-based Lincoln Piano Trio made one of their many Sonoma County appearances, this time on the Spring Lake Village Classical Music Series. Regularly presented by local impresario Robert Hayden, the Lin...
Mastercard Performance Series / Saturday, November 14, 2015
Chris Thile,mandolin

Mandolinist Chris Thile


by Phil Lawrence
Saturday, November 14, 2015

In Weill Hall Nov. 14 mandolinist Chris Thile treated a large audience to a special presentation not just of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas, but to a multifaceted performance by a fully mature and genuinely joyful artist of the highest caliber. Those who came expecting to hear a staid classical performance of Bach were instead delighted by an array of original songs and instrumental compositions that yes, included Bach's Sonata No. 2 in A Minor and the Allemande from the Partita No. 1 in B Minor. But these were two of twelve pieces Mr. Thile played before his three encores. Clearly Mr. Thile intended to defy the boundaries between musical genres and re-define the “classical” musical listening experience.

Should the audience have been disappointed by this? Judging by their reaction, on the contrary, the artist proved to be more than a virtuoso on his mandolin, but also a complete performer and composer who reached out to his audience with genuine warmth and respect, and they responded in kind. Why? Because he throws his whole effervescent personality into his singing and playing; moreover he entertained the crowd between songs with casual and often comedic discourses. Clearly his experience as a guest host for Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion radio show has sharpened his sensibility for communicating with his listeners.

I have been playing the mandolin since 1978 but first heard Mr. Thile at The 2002 Strawberry Music Festival when he was 20. My reaction after hearing the first flurry of notes was that this was the best mandolin player in the world, and I had heard lots of great players.

Though rooted in the bluegrass/newgrass tradition, his taste in musical styles seems to encompass every genre and style. During the performance of Allemande he coaxed a variety sounds from of his Loar mandolin, and when he played in the upper registers I could imagine quick glimmers of starlight emanating from the fretboard, or the reflections of light on a pure white snowflake. There was a delicacy and a balance to the tones. The grace notes were played with precision and intensity of purpose. When he stoked a full-throated chord, the instrument embraced the entire hall in waves of pure beauty. It was clear from the beginning that this was no ordinary instrument and it was in the hands of no ordinary musician.

As mentioned, Mr. Thile was clearly trying to defy the boundaries between genres, and he began the Allemande with an improvised vocal introduction. It was as if he were saying that creation begins with the Word. His distinctive high tenor voice led into the opening notes, and we were off on musical journey that lasted almost two hours. This was followed by a comedic song that Mr. Thile had developed for the concert, and it extolled the qualities of Weill Hall and used a biblical allusion of his own, and he claimed that God had made Weill Hall before Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall in Massachusetts. He then sang that God had gone back in time to make Tanglewood in Weill's image. This humorous composition quickly established rapport with the audience. He then sang an Americana style ballad in a minor key, and between verses he improvised, bringing out the volume and full capacity of his instrument, adding dazzling chromatic runs and powerful chords amplified and sustained by tremolo.

His next piece was a Bill Monroe song, “Rabbit in the Log.” Mr. Thile took this comic song at a blistering tempo, once again ripping off blinding flurries of single notes, like pearls on a string. His pellucid tenor told the story of a rural Southern hunter who has “a rabbit in the log” but he “ain't got his dog.” The song's narrator is determined to catch the rabbit, after which he will “build ... a fire and I'll cook that old hare/ Roast him in the flames good and brown.” When he had finished this song he noted how the lyrics were ironically most appropriate to the lifestyle of the average resident of Rohnert Park. By this point he had everyone laughing and slapping their thighs.

Mr. Thile could be entertaining even while tuning his instrument. While doing so, he prefaced his next song, “Daughter of Eve”, by remarking that the Garden of Eden story in the Bible had placed what he imagined as a venom spitting cherubim before the gates of Eden, along with a flaming sword that slowly would swing back and forth before the gate. He then launched into a unique original song which allowed him to showcase for a variety of techniques, including his masterful ability to pick across the strings in the duo style.

This was followed by the Punch Brothers Band song “My, Oh My.” Here he displayed the full range of his vocal talents, reaching for clean, high falsetto tones, accompanied by steady, rhythmic chords on the mandolin. He displayed a wide dynamic range that times demanded attention with the full force of mandolin and voice, and at other times he seemed to mesmerize the audience by sheer and sudden drops in volume. For a moment I imagined a character from Isaac Asimov’s novel, Foundation, in which The Mule is able to control an audience's every thought when he plays his harp.

Mr. Thile introduced “The Moonshiner” by confiding that he loves fine wines, and by revealing how he enjoys visiting Sonoma County for this reason. This was a slow haunting lament of the ballad that chronicles the solitary pathos of an alcoholic. Before performing the instrumental “Song for a Young Queen,” Mr. Thile explained from the stage that at fifteen he had become infatuated with Natalie Portman in her role in the movie Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. The whimsical title seems to validate the musical extravaganza that followed, as the composition emanates a sense of joy and beauty. His right hand technique involves a complex and difficult series of crossing over the strings as he elaborates the melody, and the tune has an epic quality of galactic proportions, appropriate for a galactic queen.

After leaving the audience spellbound by this display of beauty, he launched into a comic “breakup” song “If You're Going to Leave Me, Set Me Up With One of Your Friends.” With this he had th audience bursting with laughter.

Finally he played more Bach, in this case a transcription of the Violin Sonata in A Minor, BWV 1003. The first movement (Grave) was exquisitely executed, but as he moved into the second movement fugue, Mr. Thile showed that he is indeed human, as his mandolin went ever so slightly out of tune, and though most would not notice, he covered this “fly in the ointment” with the sheer power of his kinetic performance. Just before the Andante he took a quick moment to retune, and by that time he blew us all away with the precision and lightning speed of the Allegro. The applause was like thunder. He then began to talk directly to the instrument’s tuning pegs, gently admonishing them to remain obediently in tune. He played one more ballad and closed his performance with the comic “I'll Play You Song on the Mandolin.” “There ain't too many folks who can play too many notes on the mandolin,” as the refrain goes, and indeed, there are few who can play as many notes as brilliantly or as perfectly as Mr. Thile.

The first encore was performed without a microphone, as it seems the artist wanted to achieve a natural sound without any intervening electronics. From my seat the change worked fine. It was another comedy song, the performer’s version of a Kendrick Lamar rap tune, which he said he liked to sing for his six month-old son. Once again he had everyone laughing and cheering. He then played a slow ballad and finished the evening with “The Fox,” a traditional song which was delivered at an unbelievable tempo, articulating the words as clearly and as rapidly as the notes he fired from his mandolin.

It’s interesting that Mr. Thile never sits or stands motionless. His every note is accompanied by some sort of kinetic activity. He dances with his instrument, merging it with his body, so that he and the mandolin achieve that rare unity of perfection every performer dreams of attaining. Effortless and joyful, liberating and uplifting.