I am doing something personally unprecedented: flying across the country to see a concert. In the past, I have journeyed in cars, buses and trains along the east coast to hear music that mattered to me. Today, an older and more ambitious version of my previous self is kicking it up a notch. I’m flying to Denver for a single night to hear the premiere of Chris Thile’s mandolin concerto.
I’m currently sitting in the exit row of my second flight, nursing the wounds I sustained after learning my upgrade would not come through. How recently I was coddled through the initial hop from New York to Minneapolis, served an expansive breakfast and many water refills! Now I’ve been reduced to complimentary cookies and peanuts and a $5 snack basket. Is it really a basket? Where’s my mimosa!
In case you are wondering, I’m not the only person making a journey to hear the concert. Gabriel Kahane, son of tonight’s conductor, is flying in from Minneapolis on a day off mid-tour. In fact, we just missed each other at the airport, Gabriel stuck on the light rail as I smugly recharged my computer. Right now I’m weighing whether or not to wait for him at the Denver airport. The taxi costs $53.50 and for once I’ve got no one to reimburse my receipt. But I digress. I wanted to tell you also that I’m not traveling on some whim of a journalistic assignment. I’m here purely as a curious and enthusiastic listener.
I feel that this is a unique and compelling moment in the history of American music. Tonight, someone who grew up playing bluegrass in southern California, who has no conservatory-earned performance degree nor a single composition lesson under his belt, will be standing in front of the Colorado Symphony playing a concerto of his own writing. Has something like this happened before? Don’t mention that name on the tip of your tongue. This is not a genre portrait or some kind of crossover appeal. A new, serious work has been crafted for an instrument that has (I think) no concerto since Vivaldi.
I’ve been a fan of Chris’ music for something like seven years, ever since a friend mailed me a burned copy of his third solo record, “Not All Who Wander Are Lost.” The album was my introduction to a genre that is often called ‘newgrass’ and I found the combination of folk instrument timbres and chamber music-influenced composition deeply satisfying and thought-provoking. I followed the genre back through time to discover Strength in Numbers’ “Telluride Sessions,” Bela Fleck’s “Drive,” and Jerry Douglas, Russ Barenberg and Edgar Meyer’s “Skip, Hop and Wobble.” Later I discovered more contemporary releases such as David Grier’s “I’ve Got The House To Myself,” Noam Pikelny’s “In The Maze,” and Andy Leftwich’s “Ride.” I heard Thile’s new work each time it arrived, whether in duo with Mike Marshall or Edgar Meyer, or with his band of identical membership and unstable title (How To Grow A Band, Tensions Mountain Boys, Punch Brothers). The level of engagement with the compositions themselves was always noticeably deeper on his recordings than on any of his peers’. This fact as well as his penchant for playing Bach’s solo violin works live combine to make a case for the inevitability of a mandolin concerto. Actually, that may be a stretch. The creation of this new piece could stem mainly from Chris’ unceasing ambition and fascination with orchestral music.
Fast forward 24 hours and you’ll find me on another airplane, heading home. I’m slightly underslept and overnourished but I have no regrets about my trip. Let me tell you a little more about it. After being dropped off at the wrong Hyatt, I walked a few blocks to the other one and got settled. Through the grapevine of privileged text messages, I learned that there would be a pre-concert lecture an hour prior to the concert. Interested in making the most of my trip, I decided to attend, Gabriel in tow. Now, one would think that a pre-concert lecture, at which Thile was present, would aim to shed significant light on the origin and creation of the piece. In fact, the first half of the abbreviated talk was spent discussing the other pieces on the program, with Chris sitting pointlessly onstage. Eventually, a conversation ensued that served mostly to provide biographical background on a platinum-selling artist to a curious but slightly uninformed audience. In a telling moment, Chris replied to a question about future performances of the piece by saying, “I know that we’re playing here tonight, Saturday and Sunday and I haven’t thought much beyond that.” Thank you. We were, after all, here to discuss the event of THE PRESENT. Frustration aside, the best moments were Thile playing “Red Haired Boy” and part of Bach’s E Major Prelude in close succession.
The program itself was a bit of a twist on the old, reliable American theme. It opened with Billy The Kid, a piece with which I became familiar through Bill Frisell’s arrangement from “Have A Little Faith.” My neighbor said he did not quite believe in the piece, structurally, or as a cohesive unit. I suggested viewing it as a kind of film score. I’m a simple listener, I suppose. I like the rhythmic gesture that underpins the opening melody and, well, descending 5ths always make me happy. Perhaps I have Chris Whitley to blame for that. Next up, Jeffrey Kahane, who a close friend refers to as “literally the world’s greatest man,” stepped off the podium and took a seat in front of the piano. It was inevitable that we would face Gerschwin on this program, but I was pleased to encounter the original version written for Paul Whiteman’s ensemble. Yin to a later yang, there was a banjoist onstage, playing inaudibly, which is impressive for banjo. The ensemble also featured saxophones and celeste. Kahane played the United Airlines out of the piece, revitalizing it with a new sense of phrasing and motion. It was frankly exciting to watch him alternate within the piece between playing and conducting. As a surprise, he rocked a mic and told the crowd that in honor of Benny Goodman’s 100th birthday, he had invited the principal clarinetist to join him in Gerschwin’s 3 Preludes.
At this point, we reached intermission. Having achieved a friendly familiarity with the bartender in the lobby, we returned for another double round of Woodford Reserve. While sipping, we sought to identify Nickel Creek fans in the audience. There weren’t many but they stuck out. We skipped a piece written by the principal percussionist, seeking a pre-Thile pallet cleanser, and scurried in to find our seats for the main event. Thile emerged, clad in navy blue suit, green shirt, yellow fat tie and brown shoes. Emerged isn’t really the right word, as he sort of shuffled onstage, mandolin strapped on, seemingly ready to accompany himself in a little soft shoe routine. He sort of waved at people, smiling giddily and channeling a 12-year-old choir boy. Given the orchestration and the nature of the solo instrument, Chris played into a mic and was very lightly amplified. Too lightly, in fact. Straining to listen, I was surprised by the harmonic language that emerged. There was nothing to connect this music to any of his previous work other than his own presence. The piece seemed conversational and Thile looked around at different sections of the orchestra during rests. He used the mandolin effectively as an orchestral color, percussive element and solo instrument. He bobbed, weaved, launched tuplets from the tips of his fingers, played high, low, unconventionally voiced chords and traditional tremolo, even improvised. The second movement, “Air on the F Train,” featured some ascending sonorities familiar to orange-line commuters back home. It was sparse and beautiful. The third movement is harder for me to remember, what with the festivities that followed and the fact that I only heard the piece once. I did love that there was an excellent ending, having always found the ending of “Blind Leaving the Blind” slightly understated. The performance did not stop with the concerto. Thile came back for the E Major Prelude and then invited one of the orchestra’s first violinists, a Colorado State Champion fiddler, to join him for a tune. She sounded great but I didn’t envy her in that moment trying to hang with the Captain!
On the whole, it was a very compelling musical evening. I regret not being able to stay to here the concerto another time or two, but I suspect the piece will continue to evolve and appear on my iPod soon enough. It’s hard to imagine an orchestra playing the work better than the Colorado Symphony did. They handled the rhythms, colors and principal solos with ease and grace. I was surprised that Chris, in his compositional process, traveled so far from his bread and butter but I understand that it was likely important to send a message that the work was not an attempt at fusion or some crossover marketing ploy. I can’t help but feel incredibly inspired by what he created and by the simple fact that he made it happen. Those of you still reading will be strongly encouraged to buy tickets for his appearance with Punch Brothers at Carnegie Hall in October. I will be there doing a little bit of my favorite soft shoe.
As for me, it’s time to make some progress on that white wine and enjoy the rest of a fascinating, headphone-free cinematic experience courtesy of two of my least favorite actors, Ben Affleck and Russell Crowe.
Delta Flight 742
Seat 1D (Greek Salad with Chicken, Ginger Cookie)