Review: Chris Thile Is the God of Small Sounds

Unplugged, Chris Thile is the god of small sounds. He plays the mandolin, which means he coaxes music out of notes that are shy and short-lived.

Mr. Thile is a superstar on this instrument, with multiple Grammys, a MacArthur “genius” grant and hosting duties on the radio variety show “Live From Here” (formerly “A Prairie Home Companion”) among his credits. But when he plays an acoustic solo program at Carnegie Hall, he has to do so in the pocket-size Weill Recital Hall. Even in such an intimate space, listening to each tiny note requires physical commitment, like catching snowflakes on your tongue.

His concert on Wednesday — I caught the first of two sets — was part of a series Mr. Thile designed for Carnegie, where he holds the Debs Composer’s Chair this season, drawing on his wide musical interests and collaborations with jazz and bluegrass artists. The program contained selections from his transcriptions of Bach’s partitas for solo violin, bluegrass standards, arrangements of pop songs and Mr. Thile’s own compositions — full of whimsy and breathless virtuosity.

Bach’s own virtuosity translates to a different effect on the mandolin. In a fast movement such as the Gigue from the D minor Partita, Mr. Thile has an advantage on a violinist: Without any large muscle groups involved in the production of sound, he can play the runs with lightning speed — or at least as fast as his pick can keep up. The music flies by in one joyous arc, with the linear melody and vertical harmony blurring into a single web of gossamer beauty.

In a slow movement like the Sarabande from the B minor Partita, the mandolin’s inability to sustain sounds adds poignancy. The noble gestures are muted; statements become mere suggestions. But what comes through vividly in this arrangement is the genetic strand of the sarabande as a Spanish dance with Arabic roots. Mr. Thile’s playing spoke of the debt owed by Bach to much older, unnamed masters of the oud.

By the same token, Mr. Thile allowed contemporary songs to grow organically out of Bach. His own wistful “This Is the Song” emerged from the last bar of a Bach Courante gently, his transparent voice floating in space. His guileless, clear vocals belong to the world of pop, but are fueled by serious technique.

On sustained notes, he sometimes produced a light version of the “messa di voce” that is part of an opera singer’s tool kit, placing a note quietly, as in the palm of his hand, then letting it swell before reining it back again. The effect is all the more stunning accompanied by the furious, hyperkinetic strumming required to draw a similar crescendo out of the mandolin.

Without printed lyrics, it was sometimes hard to make out the words Mr. Thile was singing. It didn’t seem to matter much in some of the bluegrass numbers, which raced by in a delirious gallop with snippets of text — was he really singing about a chicken on his back? — flashing past. But I would have liked a chance to better acquaint myself with the words to a new political triptych that drew some of Mr. Thile’s darkest music, with dense chromatic chords and snarky jazz interludes. It was the only time I found myself wishing he had a microphone.

Chris Thile
Performed on Wednesday at Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall, Manhattan.

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