In review: Chris Thile at Wigmore Hall

In review: Chris Thile at Wigmore Hall

Collin Shay

How often do you get a glimpse into the mind of a musical genius? Lucky for us, Chris Thile gave a solo recital at Wigmore Hall on Friday night. The vibe of Wigmore was quite unusually lively, as the young audience sat in an excited anticipation of the virtuosic mandolin player.

For two solid hours, Thile presented an incredible performance that transcended genre, comprised of different styles of folk, pop, and baroque music that at times seamlessly melted into each other. The entire night was linked by the movements from a transcription of Bach’s Violin Partita in D Minor - maybe most people haven’t heard Bach mashed-up with Radiohead, but we hope that everyone gets to enjoy that experience more than once in their lifetime. Thile’s treatment of Bach was perfectly stylish as he contrasted easy legato playing with meaningful articulation and tied everything together with a true rubato that sounds as effective in eighteenth century music as it does in bluegrass.

Aside from Bach and Radiohead, we heard songs by Josh Ritter, Bob Dylan and Thile himself, among others. It was great to hear familiar music on top of music we had never heard before.

Is it his technical ability and agility what makes his playing so astounding? Maybe it’s his machine-like internal clock and sense of rhythm, or his extreme human-like sensitivity in emotional expression. Perhaps the reason we are so attracted to him is from his power to pull us into his soundworld and clear sense of harmony. This is not one of the cases where we can’t put a finger on why we love him so much - on the contrary, there are too many reasons to love Chris Thile.

The virtuosity of his mandolin playing reminded us of the pristine coloratura of singers like Marilyn Horne or Joan Sutherland - every note is perfect, and every note has purpose. We hear every note in its exact place, and even as Thile was playing in just one voice, we heard how the harmony progressed.

It must not be overlooked that as brilliant Thile is as an instrumentalist, he also has impressive control over his voice. It is clear that Thile sings with a technique that serves him and his music well, from supported pianissimo singing to successful navigation of the head voice - chest voice passaggio. We were particularly impressed by a messa di voce on a held note that seemed to last for ages. It was enough to transport any classical voice nerd into heaven.

The classical nerds and bluegrass nerds alike went absolutely mental after it was over, leading to an encore where he took three requests from the audience and mashed them into one song on the spot. Musical genius. Always humble, he presented his first encore by asking if we really wanted to hear more: “You do realize it’s just gonna be more mandolin, right?” Yes, we do realize, we have read and accept the terms and conditions.

There was a lot to take away from Friday night. Given the success Thile has with overlapping genres, it made us hungry to see more classical music alongside other styles. We would love to see more of Chris Thile’s shtick in classical recitals - every time he spoke to us we were drawn into his musical world even more. But more than anything, after two hours of intense playing it was inspiring seeing how much Thile just loves to make music.

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