More than anything else, words like natural and effortless come to mind when listening to Chris Thile’s music. Not that it looks effortless as he spasms during his improvisations, or paces about making excited gestures at the other musicians when laying out. And there’s certainly nothing effortless about the work that goes into becoming a virtuoso. But Thile’s musicianship is on that rare level where his mind and his music are one, and what bursts forth from his dextrous fingers sounds less like notes and chords, and more like smears and stabs of pure emotion. Thile doesn’t make it look easy, he makes it look unconscious, like breathing or blinking. Much like his frequent collaborator Edgar Meyer, Thile has managed to not only blend Americana with European classical elements in unprecedented ways, but has also utterly redefined what anyone thought was technically possible on his instrument. From selling gold records with Nickel Creek as a teenager to premiering his magnificent chamber suite, The Blind Leaving the Blind, with Punch Brothers at Carnegie Hall in 2009, to appearing on Yo-Yo Ma’s bluegrass-inspired outing The Goat Rodeo Sessions, Thile’s career has been defined by unimaginable virtuosity and relentless artistic growth. Over the course of two performances with the mighty Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, I had the joy of witnessing the full breadth of Thile’s creativity and musical ability, from short improvisations at the intimate Galapagos Art Space to a performance of his large-scale concerto for mandolin and orchestra, Ad Astra per Alas Porci (“to the stars on the wings of a pig”) at Carnegie Hall.
Thile’s partnership with Orpheus makes perfect sense. The NYC-based conductorless chamber orchestra also carries a deep reverence for tradition, balanced with a passion for the new and modern. They have performed, to great critical acclaim, everything from Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos to Ravi Shankar’s works for sitar and orchestra, and seem equally at home with jagged Penderecki and pastoral Copland. Working with great soloists has been a point of pride for Orpheus, and I can certainly see why: their interaction with Thile was telepathic, with a flowing, rhythmic connection one would expect from a jazz combo or a string quartet.
At Galapagos, I sat with a small, mixed crowd of classical enthusiasts and folk/indie/Thile fans (although, honestly, who can really tell anymore?) and took in an intimate performance. Orpheus’ core strings presented John Adams’ churning, bittersweet String Quartet, but with a twist: between each of the five movements, Thile played a short, unaccompanied improvisation loosely based on the preceding movement (an inspired idea from Orpheus’ composer-in-residence Gabriel Kahane). While I desperately wanted to hear them play together, the separation of Thile and the quartet allowed for a fascinating perspective on the Adams piece. Thile would sometimes stay close to the source material, or play a theme once and veer wildly off into space, but it felt like he was reacting to Adams throughout. As the audience stopped for breath, and took in the gravity of a movement, we also got to hear how Thile felt, speaking eloquently through his mandolin.
At Carnegie, Thile and Orpheus maintained that same friendly, intimate charm, which was especially impressive given that the crowd was at least five times larger. The audience was diverse that night as well, in terms of age and taste, with equal numbers of band shirts and fancy hats, and several big families with small kids (who, impressively, were much quieter than I ever was seeing music at their age).The evening began with Paul Chihara’s arrangement of parts from Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti (commissioned especially for Orpheus). Bernstein’s balance of dark drive and wayward melody is well-suited to Orpheus. I’ve noticed something about conductorless chamber orchestras in general, and Orpheus specifically: they handle changing colors, tactile moods, and visually stirring textures in a much more organic, natural-sounding fashion than their conducted brethren. In a biographical video on their website, one of Orpheus’ members talks about how they are all conductors, how they all are equally responsible for tempo, dynamics, interpretation, and other conductor’s duties, as well as their individual musician’s responsibilities. Something about the broad, egalitarian inclusion of each musician’s character and concerns (and the lack of direct orders from a conductor’s higher authority) allows the ensemble to act and react almost telepathically, like fingers on a hand instead of soldiers in a platoon. Chihara’s adaptation didn’t compress the opera so much as distill it, boiling it down to its core elements while maintaining the original’s broad emotional spectrum.
Next was Thile’s concerto. I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was blown away from the first few bars. Thile’s orchestral writing recalls the best of post-Romantic 20th-century composers, with ghosts of Shostakovich, Copland, Bernstein and Mahler. But ghosts are all they are, for Thile’s style is all his own. A shock of ominous chords lead to the first theme, which defined the aesthetic of the work: slivers of melody that perhaps once were bluegrass, but in some scorched alternate universe where bluegrass is plagued by fever dreams and demented chromaticism. Hairpin turns of light, shade and mood lay the nervous foundation for Thile’s virtuosic explosions. The interplay between him and Orpheus was astounding to hear, with themes originating in the mandolin only to seep out into the orchestra, flit about between strings and winds, and come crashing back into the mandolin. Sometimes Thile and Orpheus would battle, sometimes work in tandem… sometimes they’d cry on each others’ shoulder and sometimes they’d stab the other in the back. Thile’s gentle, bluesy swing occasionally played a sharp rhythmic contrast to the orchestra’s stridency, but many if not most of his elaborate runs sounded more like Liszt than bluegrass.
Thile followed his concerto with a sweet, delicate version of a Gillian Welch song (the name of which I didn’t catch), and a breathtaking Bach partita, both unaccompanied and unamplified. He walked offstage to thunderous applause, and left Orpheus to tear through a newer work, Clint Needhams’s When We Forget. Commissioned by Orpheus for their Project 440, Needham’s piece bridged the program perfectly, bearing the influence of Copland and Bernstein while maintaining a well-developed, individualistic voice, weaving rock-like minimalism and chiming dissonances into a energetic whole.
Both shows ended with Orpheus’ rendition of Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite. Pairing Copland and Thile’s music is an excellent choice. Both seek to make new, interesting music out of these two seemingly opposing styles they love, but each comes at the issue from a different angle (Copland was a trained composer who took a cue from the Romantic Nationalists and built large-scale classical works from American folk materials, Thile is a folk musician who came to European classical forms and techniques after the establishment of his musical identity). At Galapagos, the suite was warm and friendly, but at Carnegie it poured ethereal light. Orpheus has made this a central piece in their repertoire and it’s easy to see why. The subtle play of emotions, the moments of jarring atonality followed by elegant pastoral vistas, the balance of power amongst the instruments… everything in the piece plays to Orpheus’ strengths.
What truly connected all the works, throughout both shows, was the joyousness that American composers bring to incorporating Americana into modern classical music. Each composer represented a key point in time for this style: Bernstein and Copland as early innovators, Adams as a modernizer, Thile and Needham as the future. Musicians like Thile and Orpheus are the most effective kinds of trailblazers: those who can bring together tradition and innovation without being dominated by either, and manage to maintain an utterly genuine, original voice while they’re at it.
Evan Burke is a bassist and composer living in Brooklyn.