Thursday night the Colorado Symphony Orchestra gave the world premier performance of Chris Thile’s Mandolin Concerto. This the first time ever this piece was performed – and what better person to play the mandolin than the composer and virtuoso instrumentalist Chris Thile. The concert was also a celebration of American composers featuring works by Copland, Gershwin and the Colorado Symphony’s own Composer-in-Residence William Hill.
From beginning to end the program was filled with rich yet diverse music. Copland’s Suite from Billy the Kid is quintessential Americana filled with references to “Good-Bye, Old Paint”, “Old Chisholm Trail” and “Git Along Little Dogies” infused with fresh harmonies and complex orchestral textures and rhythms. Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” is perhaps the best blend of jazz and classical music ever composed utilizing only a small portion of the orchestra and yet, with Jeffery Kahane showing off his virtuoso skills as both pianist and conductor the ensemble filled the hall. William Hill’s Four Moments Musical is a modern piece composed for the brass and percussion sections of the Colorado Symphony – and boy did they have fun with it tonight! The often rapid pace and shifting metre gave the music a thoroughly modern edge.
All of this leads up to Chris Thile’s Mandolin Concerto. While you might have expected something bluegrass given Thile’s background in the bands Nickel Creek and The Punch Brothers, his music was completely immersed in classical style. The opening of the piece quickly had his fingers flying across the fret board of the mandolin, while the orchestra created a series of rich colors and washes behind him. The program mentioned the mandolin was to be slightly amplified - unfortunately, it was not amplified enough. The mandolin is not a highly resonant instrument. In a small group the sound can cut through, but when competing with an orchestra a fair portion of the first movement’s mandolin work was lost. There was a cadenza toward the end of the first movement allowing Thile a chance for solo work. This was beautiful and amazing – not at all indicative of his bluegrass roots and yet glorifying the mandolin as an instrument.
The second movement of the concerto was lovely and lyrical, the best movement of the piece. Catherine Beeson had a wonderful moment to shine with a beautiful viola solo, not something you hear very often in classical music. Thile’s sense of the viola’s sound blended with the mandolin was really touching. As the movement came to a close the music drifted away with a somber sigh.
The final movement started with solo mandolin but quickly built up steam. This movement gave us a chance to hear (sort of) some of the intricate syncopated soloist sections. There were also some nods to jazz and bluegrass styles of music, but nothing overt – much like Copland’s use of recognizable themes in Billy the Kid, enough to appreciate but not so much to feel like a cover tune. There were more great moments for solo viola and cello. This movement has the potential of being the strongest of the three except it seems to wander a bit, as if not really sure how to get to the end. That said, the end, when it does arrive is strong.
For a first orchestral piece, Chris Thile should be extremely pleased with this effort. This was very modern classical music with rich textures and sonic colors. The solo instrument obviously was virtuosic in nature, even if not all of it could be heard. While it may not become a standard part of the repertoire, few “first” compositions ever are. I hope he is encouraged by the well deserved standing ovation he received tonight. He should compose more classical music; he could well be the Mozart of our day.
He even treated us to a pair of encore pieces. One was Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E, Prelude. The other featured Larisa Fesmire, a violinist in the Colorado Symphony and a champion fiddler. The two did a wonderful duet to leave the crowd glowing.
Not to short change the rest of the evening I should mention some highlights from earlier pieces. The concert focused on the world premiere but there were many other delightful moments.
In Aaron Copland’s Billy the Kid the woodwinds are featured. The Colorado Symphony Orchestra has some of very fine woodwind players and this really gave them a chance to show off. But there are also wonderful moments for the brass (particularly the trombone) and percussion. Kahane obviously loves this piece as his every move was expressing vividly each shift in mood, entrance or articulation needed in the orchestra. Colorado Symphony Orchestra was recording tonight. I hope this version gets put on a record at some point – it was that good.
Jeffery Kahane is not only a world class conductor but a virtuoso pianist and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is a wonderful piece to combine these two elements. The orchestra was paired down to a much smaller ensemble, that of the original instrumentation of Paul Whiteman’s orchestra. From the legendary clarinet opening to the furious piano interludes within the piece, this was a superb performance. So much so the audience practically demanded an encore – and we got it – three preludes for Piano and Clarinet by George Gershwin. Bill Jackson was his typical astounding self. And Jeffery Kahane showed yet again how much he will be missed come the end of this season.
So far the concert was a build up to the Mandolin Concerto with bits of Americana and jazz to celebrate the diversity of American classical music. In the second half we were treated to a piece by the local composer William Hill. His Four Moments Musical starts with a fanfare. Again, this piece is written for only brass and percussion, so we were really given a chance to hear the skill of these performers. Highlights included brilliant clarity by Justin Bartel and Patrick Tillery on Trumpet, amazing tone and color by John Daley on Trombone and the entire percussion section which often had to hold the piece together amid the flurry of the irregular meters. Not only did William Hill write the music, but he performed on the timpani as part of this stellar group. In the end the music was rich and powerful, but never cacophonous – which so often happens when composers get carried away with percussion and brass.
These three pieces were a perfect lead in to Chris Thile’s Mandolin Concerto. Over all this was a strong concert, not the best I have heard the Colorado Symphony Orchestra play, but if they increase the volume level for the mandolin Saturday and Sunday’s performance will be well worth the trip. You will be experiencing the first classical composition by a virtuoso performer who has all the makings of being a truly exceptional composer as well.
Saturday, September 19 - 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, September 20th - 2:30pm
Jeffrey Kahane, music director and piano
Chris Thile, mandolin
COPLAND Suite from Billy the Kid
GERSHWIN Rhapsody in Blue
WILLIAM HILL Four Moments Musical
CHRIS THILE Madolin Concerto