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Mandolinist Thile goes way, way Bach [Roanoke Times (Roanoke, VA)]

October 11, 2013


Johann Sebastian Bach has been dead for 263 years, but musicians are still working on his music. Look at the Billboard classical music chart. Four albums devoted to Bach's music are in that list's top 20. Mandolinist Chris Thile has one of them, "Bach: Sonatas & Partitas, Vol. 1." It was No. 12 on the Billboard classical albums chart this week, having peaked at No. 1.

Of course, those sales don't approach the millions that Robin Thicke moved with his single, "Blurred Lines." But let's see if Thicke or any of his songwriting/producing cohort can stand alone on a stage and pick a version of "Sonata No. 1 in G Minor, BVW 1001, Presto."

"Rising in the charts," Thile joked to a sold-out crowd of more than 900 on Thursday night at Jefferson Center in Roanoke. He was talking about a movement from his own classically inspired piece, "The Blind Leading The Blind," as well as his version of another "Sonata No. 1" piece, "Fuga: Allegro." He tossed in a Thicke reference alongside - because it's funny to think that Bach was the hitmaker of his generation, and this is what we've come to in 2013.

Thile comes by his music snobbery honestly. He knocked out all of "Sonata No. 2 in A Minor" without a piece of sheet music for help. That came at the back end of a set that included Fiona Apple's "Fast As You Can," The Louvin Brothers' "Broadminded," the Civil War-era song "Richmond Is A Hard Road To Travel" and an ocean of wickedly inventive and often hummingbird quick improvisations.

Early on, he tended toward the dischordant on "Broadminded," between such lines as "that word, 'broadminded,' is spelled S-I-N / I read my Bible / They shall not enter in."

Thile told the crowd that those chords spoke to his feelings about the lyrics. His wild jumps between full voice and keening falsetto made the point, as well.

Thile is a paragon of the broad-minded. The cute little kid who came to national attention with the band Nickel Creek grew into the instrumental genius who has played with a wider range of musicians and in a wider range of styles than most performers can handle.

The Bach music, which he has been studying for about half of his 32 years, is the most recent thing he has taken into a studio and onto stages. With it, he showed once again that he can expand boundaries of the mandolin, popularly considered a bluegrass instrument. He took the Bach pieces, written for violin, and put his mark on them, showing great dynamic control, dexterity, endurance and speed while allowing lush breathing room to the slower sonatas and partitas.

Of course, a number of people came in expecting more of the pop/ chamber/grass that Thile has developed, and he gave them Punch Brothers' "You Are" and his own hilarious "If You're Gonna Leave Me (Set Me Up with One of Your Friends)." But a couple of audience members were dead set on hearing "Rye Whiskey," and their repeated request was a huge annoyance.

Thile teased like he might play it near the end, before telling them that for tonight, "Presto" would be "Rye Whiskey."

"Oh boy," he added.

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