Mandolinist Chris Thile’s recent recording of Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin makes him one of just a few contemporary pop performers to have both hit the pop top twenty and released a major classical album. Thile (rhymes with “freely”) first charted as a teen prodigy in the progressive bluegrass band Nickel Creek and ever since then has brilliantly confounded any possible expectation that he might burn out. Thile has recorded straight bluegrass as well as progressive styles with his band Punch Brothers, including remote fusions such as a forty-minute suite of post-bop bluegrass songs chronicling the breakup of his marriage. The razzle-dazzle factor is immense–he was one of this year’s MacArthur “genius grant” recipients–but he hasn’t lost the common touch, either. And now, Bach. Thile has flirted with classical music in the past, but this time he’s taking on one of its monuments.
The solo violin sonatas and partitas are among Bach’s most fascinating works. They combine what was then extreme violin technique with, some say, especially deep examples of Bach’s penchant for numerological arcana. Most of the individual movements demand that the violinist produce vertical sonorities or even full chords–not an easy thing on a violin–by dragging the bow across multiple strings at once, sometimes over long stretches of music. The level of overall virtuosity still challenges today’s top violinists, and it doesn’t translate easily to a mandolin, which produces chords readily.
Thile’s solutions to this problem are multiple and ingenious. He takes everything at a very fast clip–not fast enough to lose the essence of the music, but enough to draw out the characteristic percussive, careening-around-the-corners sound of a mandolin at top speed. He subtly alters some of the violin ornaments into mandolin ornaments, with lovely results. And in the slower movements, where the multiple-lines problem is most acute, he hits the individual notes heavily yet smoothly enough to distract the ear away from its natural tendency to hear chords on the mandolin and toward the individual lines. In no way is this bluegrassed Bach, but Thile makes the music his own.
On Friday, October 18, Thile comes to Rackham Auditorium, playing the Bach pieces and some of his own compositions. And there’s a Michigan connection: Thile plays a Gibson mandolin made in Kalamazoo in 1924 and signed by luthier Lloyd Loar, only one serial number off from Loar’s own instrument. Thile reportedly paid $200,000 of MacArthur money for it. All the ingredients are in place for a peak Bach experience.
This article has been edited since it appeared in the October 2013 Ann Arbor Observer. The location of the concert has been corrected. Thile’s performance is at Rackham Auditorium, 915 E. Washington.