Let it be known: Chris Thile is amazing. This MacArthur Fellowship grant winner — who composes, sings, arranges and plays a mean mandolin — wowed a packed Strathmore Music Center audience Wednesday evening.
Performing solo for two solid hours, without sitting or barely catching his breath, Thile offered a dizzying hodgepodge of his own bluegrass-tinged compositions, Bach, Fiona Apple, a solo version of a cut from his “Goat Rodeo” album (in collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma and others), a Civil War song and other ephemera drawn from seemingly everywhere. One song’s extended intro consisted entirely of rhythmic sound effects.
He is impelled and possessed by his music; at times he looked like a marionette whose controller was fending off an attack.
The concert’s centerpiece and bookends were solo violin works of Bach, the G Minor Sonata and the B Minor Partita, which Thile recently recorded. It was neither a transcription nor arrangement, since the mandolin is tuned identically to the violin; it was simply the music plucked rather than bowed. Given the extreme complexity of the pieces, Thile’s note-perfect renditions were delivered with considerably less freedom and energy than his closer-to-home material.
I was hoping for some outside-the-box ornamentation or some touch of personal creativity that he has so much of. But even his straightforward, almost bland delivery brought the crowd to its feet, cheering.
For the rest, Thile was a graceful and soulful singer, relaxed raconteur, dazzling virtuoso, gifted composer and all-around charmer, who gave the audience more than its money’s worth.
Battey is a freelance writer.