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Mandolinist Chris Thile returns to SFP with more Bach and ‘stuff’

Mandolinsit Chris Thile performing with The Punch Brothers at 2011 Stagecoach
Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images

When mandolinist Chris Thile gave his first solo recital for San Francisco Performances (SFP) in April of 2012, he structured the entire program (presented without intermission) around a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1001 sonata in G minor, originally intended for unaccompanied violin. Last night Thile returned to SFP, performing this time in the SFJAZZ Center, a venue associated with improvised invention. True, Bach predated jazz as we know it by several centuries; but, as I have often observed, his approach to performance not only was appreciated by many of the great jazz masters but also anticipated the practices they would develop.

Once again Thile chose to use BWV 1001 as the “spinal cord” for his program (performed, again, without intermission). However, Thile has been expanding his Bach repertoire since his last solo visit. Most importantly, last August Nonesuch released the first volume of a two-CD set in which Thile is performing all six of Bach’s solo violin sonatas and partitas. As a result Thile set aside the center of last night’s program for a performance of the BWV 1002 B minor partita in its entirety.

Of all of the compositions in this particular Bach collection, BWV 1002 is probably the one most suitable for a jazz setting. Thile introduced it as being in “four movements or eight movements, depending on how you want to count.” More specifically, it consists of four dance movements (none of which made it into the Jazz Age): allemande, courante, sarabande, and bourrée. However, each of these movements is followed by a highly embellished version of its original structure, known as a Double movement. These are major tests of the performer’s virtuoso skills. Presumably, Bach also intended to instruct the student in the fine art of invention, as he does in so many of his “pedagogical” compositions.

Thus, in many respects, BWV 1002 is the perfect platform for Thile’s skills. It sets an imposing standard for the level of technical skill required for execution, while, at the same time, the Double movements serve as an invitation for the performer to engage some of his own inventive capacities. Thile had no trouble accepting that invitation, not only with respect to adding riffs of his own but also in some highly inventive approaches to tempo and phrasing that bear his own personal stamp.

Thile referred to the sections of the program between the Bach performances as “stuff.” As at his last solo gig, this involved a fair amount of traditional material (including one “obligatory” Civil War song), another visit to Fiona Apple, and a generous share of his own compositions, many of which have an engaging sense of wit (“Set me up with one of your friends”). Indeed, that wit carried over to his one encore selection, which could not have provided a better summary of the full-evening experience: “All I can do for you is play songs on the mandolin.”

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