Bach meets bluegrass in a diverse evening from American mandolinist Chris Thile.
From inside the Spiegeltent in Hyde Park, American mandolin virtuoso Chis Thiele cut a wacky, bemusing and thoroughly entertaining figure in his final solo show at Sydney Festival.
On the back of his latest album performing Bach's violin sonatas and partitas on mandolin, Thile brought to the velvet-lined stage a unique musical aesthetic crafted from an eclectic fusion of classical stylings, traditional bluegrass and improvisational meanderings.
Handling his mandolin like a rough-and-tumble instrument twice its size, Thile opened the evening's events with Adagio from Bach’s G Minor sonata. Providing a thoughtful introduction to the fun ahead, Thile's playing immediately brought to light the vibrant virtuosity that earned him a Grammy Award and MacArthur 'Genius' Grant in 2009.
At the movement's conclusion, Thile explained the sonata would form the backbone of the evening's entertainment, with so-called "other stuff" interspersed between – an eclectic mix of covers and original songs. Navigating foot-stomping renditions of Bob Dylan's Don't Think Twice It's Alright and Louvin Brothers' Broadminded, Thile exuded a rockstar presence on stage, complete with hip gyrations. Think bluegrass Elvis, sans quiff.
The evening's pièce de résistance was Bach's mighty B Minor Partita – a rewarding sojourn back into classical territory. Although lacking the level of intensity brought to the piece by solo violin, (and hampered by a marginally rushed second movement), Thile’s technical brilliance never wavered and the smile plastered across his face was contagious.
Other highlights of the evening included a number of Thile's own self-deprecating numbers lamenting his luckless love life (“If you’re gonna leave me/set me up with one of your friends”). In a change of pace, the ballad Stay Away also showcased the emotive power of Thile’s soulful voice, with delicately strummed chords offering a tasteful accompaniment.
The final movement of Bach's G Minor sonata, Presto, rounded off the evening's entertainment. With fingers moving at a perfectly controlled (albeit furious) tempo, Thile's final cadence was met with a standing ovation in recognition of a uniquely understated highlight at this year's Sydney Festival.