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Music review: Mandolinist extraordinaire Chris Thile

January 24, 2010 |  3:03 pm

Christhile Mandolinist extraordinaire Chris Thile is only 28, but already he has shocked or changed the world in which he operates several times.

First, there was his breakout work with the acoustic trio Nickel Creek. More recently with the Punch Brothers, he wrote a large-scale song cycle for bluegrass band called “The Blind Leaving the Blind” (Nonesuch). As historical analogies to Thile, I would nominate Duke Ellington or Astor Piazzolla, who also tried to extend their once-humble idioms (jazz and tango, respectively) into ambitious concert forms while remaining rooted to their bases.

But rather than develop that line, Thile’s surprising and often amazing new Mandolin Concerto leaves bluegrass in the rear-view mirror for now. This is not crossover fluff, nor a PBS-friendly “Appalachia Waltz” fusion. This is a serious, total immersion into 20th century classical music, which Jeffrey Kahane and his Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra eagerly took on at the Alex Theatre on Saturday night. 

The concerto has a whimsical subtitle, “Ad Astra per Alas Porci,” which means “To the Stars on the Wings of a Pig,” but then Thile’s duo CD with Edgar Meyer contained such morsels as “This Is Not the Pig,” followed by “This Is the Pig.” Forget about that. This piece rambles for nearly 25 minutes in a complex yet attractive language verging upon atonality, with Bartok as an inspiration but not the model. Thile treats the mandolin as if it had a long virtuoso tradition, with constantly changing shapes and rhythms in the solo line. 

Thile is an astonishing exponent of his instrument; every note is charged with musical feeling way beyond that of a mere technician. The solo cadenzas, we’re told, were improvised -- and Thile did so in almost every conceivably tempo and rhythm. Revealing more sides of his protean talent, Thile followed with the Gigue from J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor -- dazzling young man’s Bach full of impulsive rhapsodic gusts -- and some unamplified “newgrass” with mind-bending mandolin riffs.

Kahane prefaced this left-field programming with more youthful Americana: Nico Muhly’s striking “By All Means,” written at age 23 as a response to Webern but easily accomodating the rhythmic engines of John Adams and other spare parts.

There was Copland’s whoop-te-do from his

20s, “Music for the Theatre” -- with Kahane getting a sufficient amount of jazzy brashness from his players -- and his more mature “Appalachian Spring,” light and springy in its 13-instrument suite version. The gulf between the two is not as wide as once thought, for the meditative episodes of the former clearly pave the way for those of the latter.

-- Richard S. Ginell

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