Singer, composer, and mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile rocked La Jolla’s sold-out Sherwood Auditorium Saturday (November 7) with a performance that elated his ardent followers and easily won over the traditional crowd of the staid La Jolla Music Society, the concert presenter.
From Bach to bluegrass, contemporary pop to Appalachian folk music, the 34-year-old performer sounded completely at home in every style he chose, and his relaxed prowess in such disparate traditions leveled the musical playing field in a refreshing way that most crossover performances rarely accomplish.
After winning renditions of his own music, including the song “Here and Heaven,” the instrumental fantasy “Song for a Young Queen,” and Nickel Creek’s “Jealous of the Moon,” he casually remarked, “Now I think it’s time for some Bach,” and he launched into his mandolin transcription of J. S. Bach’s Sonata in A Minor for Solo Violin, BWV 1003.
Thile had opened his program with an “Allemande” from Bach’s Partita in B Minor for Solo Violin, BWV 1004, so he had already established his finesse in Baroque interpretation. As he traversed the intricacies of this four-movement A Minor Sonata, what struck me was his ear for Bach’s melodic invention and the way in which he brought out the tunes embedded in Bach’s intricate, discursive style.
Thile lingered over Bach’s themes in the Sonata’s dreamy Andante in a mood of appreciation appropriate by another composer of persuasive melodies. This is an approach that flashy keyboard players might follow when they are tempted to idle through a Bach slow movement on their way the faster movement that will display their technical skill.
Thile complemented his panache in the Sonata’s daunting fugue, which he gave a rhapsodic flare, and the closing Allegro with a surprising variety of dynamic and color contrasts, especially for an instrument whose range in those musical areas is so modest. Thile made his instrument a persuasive medium for Bach, who, unlike his Italian contemporary Antonio Vivaldi who wrote mandolin concertos, never composed for Thile’s instrument.
Thile’s own songs showed the influence and straightforward lyrical contours of the country and bluegrass music he listened to growing up in San Diego’s north county suburbs, minus the cloying, repetitive harmonic formulas on which those styles rely. And when he took off between stanzas with wild, improvisatory riffs on his mandolin, he significantly expanded the emotional quotient of these listener-friendly ballads.
A persuasive vocalist with a sense of humor, he wove into his opening song local references to San Diego icons such as the Scripps Institute and the Chargers. In a musical style that suggested talkin’ blues, he also recounted some of his own family history, including a bank-embezzling grandparent whose crimes spurred the Thile family’s departure from Hamburg, Germany.
Recently, Garrison Keillor announced that Thile would take over the helm of the weekly National Public Radio show “A Prarie Home Companion” following Keillor’s retirement in the summer of 2016. The ease with which Thile communicated with his Sherwood Auditorium audience and the breadth of his musical skills auger well for a successful succession to that role.
For his encore, Thile sang the Appalachian folk song “Silver Dagger,” which some of us—a minority in this audience—recall from the folk revival of the 1950s.