Mad Mandolin Genius: Chris Thile Solo at UNC

Looks innocent, doesn’t he? But Chris Thile is a dervish, a MacArthur Genius Grant-winning musical dervish, and on the “29th day of Oktoberfest, 2013, ” he whirled onto the Memorial Hall stage with his mandolin, and the two of them alone wound and skirmished through some memorable music in this Carolina Performing Arts presentation.

Chris Thile. Photo courtesy of the artist/CPA.

Chris Thile. Photo courtesy of the artist/CPA.

Many know Thile from the progressive bluegrass quintet, The Punch Brothers, or from his earlier bands, Nickel Creek and Mutual Admiration Society. A different set may know his music from his work with bassist Edgar Meyer, and his later collaboration with Meyer, Yo-Yo Ma and Stuart Duncan on The Goat Rodeo Sessions. But earlier this year, Thile put out a solo album for Nonesuch, Bach: Sonatas and Partitas, Vol. 1. Solo mandolin. The recording includes Sonata No. 1 in G Minor, Sonata No. 2 in A Minor, and Partita No. 1 in B Minor (read Alex Wilkinson’s New Yorker review here); the concert, which Thile had performed earlier in the week in New York’s Zankel Hall (New York Times review here), included the G Minor Sonata, in parts, and the B Minor Partita, uninterrupted, interspersed with a crazy-wide range of other music.

I had mixed feelings about the concert. On the one hand, it was great fun and pretty awesome to see and hear such range in one musician. No matter what he played: Bach, Louvin Brothers, his own compositions, Fiona Apple, traditional tunes–all received the same level of engagement and amazing technique. On the other hand, the construct seemed a bit labored, and some of the transitions gave me whiplash. I had a pretty hard time going from the Adagio of the G Minor Sonata straight to the Louvin Brothers’ “Broadminded (is spelled S-I-N),” but no trouble at all going from the sublime Partita straight to Thile’s own song, “If You’re Gonna Leave Me, Set Me Up With One of Your Friends,” with nothing in between but Thile’s breathless comment on the Bach: “That’s a helluva kick-ass piece of music right there!”

He kicked its ass right back. B Minor on the mandolin is not high, but it’s lonesome, and full of feeling. And of course, the music made by the mandolin sounds so very different from that made on a violin. This sounded more like a lute that had bred with a harpsichord. (Read Alex Wilkinson’s piece for a clear explanation of how Thile gets his sound, so different from Bill Monroe’s, or anyone else’s.) It was completely engrossing–you hear the patterns in the music very differently with each note being picked out separately, rather than gliding together under the bow.

The various piece of the G Minor Sonata sounded good–but it was sort of a tease, not playing them together. Maybe it was a lesson in putting each piece of the disparate music on equal terms. However…that Presto he played at the end was so zingy I may have to get the CD, which comes with MP3 download. For the new old-fashioned crowd, the album is also available on vinyl.

Jus’ a couple o’ white boys lost in the blues: Lovett and Hiatt at UNC

As much as I am disinclined to choose only one kind of music in actual life, I do enjoy playing the game of  “if you could have only one, which would it be?” I was thinking about that Sunday night, Oct. 27, while snuggled into the happy crowd at UNC’s Memorial Auditorium for an acoustic evening with singer-songwriters Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt and their gleaming guitars, presented by Carolina Performing Arts as part of this season’s refreshing Americana series. I heard a little voice in the back of my mind saying, OK, I can give up all those pretty Schubert lieder, and maybe Verdi, too, but I got to have a singing man with a blues guitar when I’m stuck on that desert island.

Between them, Lovett and Hiatt have written a large number of the more intelligent, wry and sensitive rocking country blues songs of the past 35 years, and they took turns playing a choice selection of their own songs, with a few by other writers to leaven the mix. About a quarter of the way into the nearly 3 hour unbroken concert, Lyle Lovett began to tell about learning a certain Michael Franks song from the great Piedmont bluesmen, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, in 1978. Lovett and Hiatt then launched together into that classic, “White Boy Lost in the Blues,” Hiatt modulating off Lovett’s killer blues riff, and I was transported. Not in place, but in time, back to the spring of 1974 when I heard Sonny and Brownie playing that song on that very stage. It is a little different when the white boys are playing it, but I think the old black bluesmen would have been satisfied with Hiatt’s growl and Lovett’s pick-and-frail style. Being white, they don’t have to gentle down the mockery; they blistered that thing.

John Hiatt. Photo courtesy of the artist/CPA.

John Hiatt. Photo courtesy of the artist/CPA.

“You bought you a six string Gibson

You bought you a great big house

You try to sing like Muddy Waters

And play like Lightnin’ sounds

But since I blowed my harp

You feelin’ mean and confused.

It got you chained to your earphones

You just a white boy lost in the blues.”

Lovett recorded this song on his latest album, Release Me.

Not only was this a concert of great songs by two fantastic guitarists, it was an evening of conversation between them. I’m sure they had it pretty well mapped out, but both men have more-than-sufficient stage skills, so the between-song chat came across as fresh and intimate, and was informative as often as it was amusing. And I can’t think when I’ve ever been to an auditorium show that felt as comfortable as a house party. Certainly I’ve never heard a high-dollar musician talk onstage–not in song–about dropping out of school or stealing cars. The pair talked about their own music, each other’s music and technique, and swapped stories about other musicians and bands. Lovett told about the first time he saw Hiatt–he was playing guitar behind Ry Cooder. Said Lovett: “I thought he was…brave.” Yup, and just damn fine.

Talk is great, but there was a gracious plenty of musical action,too, with both men singing several of their best-known songs: “When I was a Very Young Man,” “Life’s Been Good to Me,” “Don’t Touch My Hat,”  by Lovett; “This Thing Called Love” (“I ain’t no porcupine/take off your kid gloves”), “Crossing Muddy Water,” “Drive South,” by Hiatt, and many more. Lyle’s been to Chapel Hill more than once, and he dedicated one song to the current Julians running Julian’s clothing store, and another to “anyone who might have been there at The Cave in 1986.” In a particularly graceful gesture, the pair chose as their set-closer a beautiful old tune by the under-appreciated Jesse Winchester, “Brand-New Tennessee Waltz.” How could it get better?  Well, they came back for an encore. Hiatt crooned “When the Road Gets Dark/Have a Little Faith in Me,” soaring up into a sustained falsetto that drew out the tears, before Lyle kicked us on out of there with a rousing rendition of “My Baby Don’t Tolerate.”

Lyle Lovett. Photo courtesy of the artist/CPA.

Lyle Lovett. Photo courtesy of the artist/CPA.

Variations on the Piano

Andras Schiff. Photo: Nadia F. Romanini.

Andras Schiff. Photo: Nadia F. Romanini.

I heard two solo piano recitals this week–two very different musicians, in quite different halls, but both playing Steinway concert grands. In Chapel Hill, Carolina Performing Arts presented András Schiff, in one of the final concerts in the last chapter of his Bach Project, playing The Goldberg Variations to a full house in Memorial Hall on Oct. 23. Schiff, who was born in Budapest in 1953, has been lauded for decades for his exquisite musicianship, his deep understanding of Bach and Beethoven in particular, and his many accomplishments in performance and recording. He seems to be past all striving for fame and glory to swell the ego; he smiled like a meditating gnome as he unrolled the glorious many-colored carpet of variations on the lovely opening aria. I’ve been listening to Simone Dinnerstein’s recording lately, enjoying its unhurried pace, dreamy sentiment and lush sensuality, but in Schiff’s concert the tempi were more varied (though never rushed), the colors were brighter, the patterns sharper, and the feelings more fully considered.

Yuja Wang, who appeared to inaugurate the Duke Performances piano recital series to a sell-out crowd in Duke’s newly renovated Baldwin Auditorium, was born in Beijing in 1987, and is currently taking the world by storm. The 26-year-old pyrotechnic wizard, quite unlike Schiff, maximizes her personal impact on stage–no chance of her charms going unnoticed. On the 24th for her Baldwin recital she wore a tiny red dress that would easily have fit in the pocket of Schiff’s loose matte black smock, and extremely high-heeled shoes. Her playing, powerful and precise, was even showier than her fashion choices. She played a mixed program, that whatever else one may have thought, demonstrated that Baldwin is a very wonderful room for solo piano.

Pianist Yuja Wang. Credit: Rolex, Fadil Berisha.

Pianist Yuja Wang. Credit: Rolex, Fadil Berisha.

She opened with Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata in A Minor, Op. 28, and gave a dazzling interpretation of that tempestuous single-movement work which premiered in Petrograd in the spring of 1918. Wang gave it all the disturbance, glamour and hope of its time and place, if not any of the darkness and blood. She also played the living daylights out of Igor Stravinsky’s Petrouchka: Three Movements for Piano, which he developed in 1921 from his orchestral ballet music for Petrouchka. It is loud and fast and hard, full of challenging passages, and well-suited for Wang’s prodigious technique and flashy panache.

Her approach to Chopin seems to be much the same as it is to Prokofiev and Stravinsky, and for this listener, that means she does not make the music come to life, no matter how brilliantly she plays the notes. I admit to being extremely choicey about my Chopin, because I love it so, especially the piano music. I was raised on Rubenstein, and latter fell for Ashkenazy, two players who find the nuances, the melancholy, the joy, the grace–the heart–nestled in the grandeur. It is possible that Wang, given fifteen or twenty years and some heartbreak and bad health, if she can fit them into her touring schedule, might become a superlative interpreter of Chopin. I was hard-pressed to stay in my seat for the hard shiny versions of Sonata, Nocturne and Ballade she played on the 24th. At intermission, the person in front of me noted that she’d wanted to throw something at the pianist during the Sonata.

Wang played three encores, during which I found solace in remembering Schiff’s meltingly beautiful encore from the previous night. After the extraordinary rendition of the 75-minute Goldberg Variations (ah, the benefits of age, experience and uncloaked feeling on top of technique), Schiff returned to the stage and played the entire Beethoven Sonata no. 30, Op. 109.  No one who was there will forget it.

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