Chris Thile proved just as adapt at playing Bach as he is at playing bluegrass during his solo mandolin performance at The College of Saint Rose’s Massry Center for the Arts Sunday night.
Before a nearly sold-out and enthusiastic audience, the Punch Brothers’ mandolin virtuoso deftly swung between styles and genres, mixing the four parts of Bach’s “Sonata No. 1 in G Minor” in with snatches of old traditional bluegrass material, his own originals and some well-placed covers. He also performed Bach’s “Partita No. 1 in B Minor” in its entirety mid-set as the show’s centerpiece.
Both these Bach pieces make up Thile’s latest solo recording, and find him once again breaking new ground on his instrument. Performing these works on mandolin, instead of the much louder violin as was originally intended by Bach, has allowed Thile to find new nuances within these often complicated works. Perhaps most impressive, juxtaposing these performances with Thile’s usual material on this night showed the heavy influence that classical music has been having on Thile all this time.
Opening with the first movement of the G Minor Sonata, “Adagio,” shortly after 7:30, Thile immediately went to work, rendering the piece’s tricky dynamics with bold, fluid motions of his picking arm. His theatrical playing — at times he looked like a marionette being controlled by some invisible puppet master up in the rafters — enhanced the overall performance, adding drama to some of the lengthy stretches of instrumental music.
This first movement immediately segued into a handful of traditional tunes strung together in a medley, with themes from Bach occasionally cutting into the strumming. The rest of the evening followed a pattern of Bach tempered with more standard bluegrass and pop fare. The second movement in the G Minor Sonata gave way to Thile original “Stay Away” and a snarling rendition of Fiona Apple’s “Fast as You Can,” featuring some stellar improvisation that earned Thile his first of many partial standing ovations.
The bouncy “Richmond is a Hard Road to Travel,” Thile’s obligatory Civil War song as he joked before the performance, brought a little levity to the proceedings. Immediately after Thile took the plunge into the B Minor Partita, which he explained is in four movements but really sounds like eight due to the repetition (”It’s like you’re hearing Bach improvising,” he quipped). The piece was long. More than once the audience began clapping, only for Thile to start playing again, but its many mood shifts and familiar melodies, coupled with Thile’s powerful playing, kept the audience riveted throughout.
Later highlights included the epic “Daughter of Eve,” a Thile original that showed the Bach influence more than any other piece played that night (except for the actual Bach pieces, of course). The final two parts of the G Minor Sonata framed this and a handful of other bluegrass pieces, bringing the show to a heady close that got everyone on their feet for the finale.