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Brantley Gutierrez

Chris Thile, a mandolinist who was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship earlier this year.

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Chris Thile

Celebrity Series of Boston

Sanders Theatre

7:00 p.m. Sunday,
Oct. 20, 2013

Greeting the crowd with good wishes for the 20th day of Oktoberfest, mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile took the stage at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre, playing a set of Bach compositions intermixed with bluegrass, jazz, and gospel jams of his own and by others. Setting out on the evening’s program, he described the set list as “Bach, ill-advisedly broken up and played with bits of stuff in between.”

Underneath the Sanders Theatre’s colossal neo-Gothic chandelier, and sandwiched between statues of 18th Century Massachusetts politicians, Thile picked and strummed to his heart’s content, swaying, bobbing and dancing to the beat and vibrations of his own strings.

Beginning the evening with the first movement of Sonata No. 1 in G Minor, Adagio, Thile’s face lit up with nearly every emotion, eyes wide and wondering, then wincing and contemplative, then twinkling and intrigued. He sprinkled the other three movements of the sonata across the remainder of the show, integrating them unexpectedly well with a selection of contemporary songs. Mixing Bach with bluegrass, Thile had himself a mighty tall order to fill, but he did so with panache, style, and humor to boot. Visibly in love with and moved by the music, Thile charmed the audience with his boyish grin and lanky, leaning legs, as his fingers trickled out note upon note of brilliantly perfected tunes.

At 32, Thile has already built quite a legacy, as would be expected of any musical genius. He began his musical journey at eight years of age with the band Nickel Creek, recorded his debut solo album at twelve, and gets down these days with progressive bluegrass band Punch Brothers — that is, when he’s not collaborating with the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Stuart Duncan.

Having become known as the world’s premier mandolinist, Thile has exercised a grand bit of musical freedom in stepping outside of the mandolin’s traditional roots in bluegrass. With his latest album, Bach: Sonatas & Partitas Vol. 1, Thile challenges musical boundaries, recording solo pieces written by Bach in the early 1700s — no piece of which was ever imagined for an instrument with such limited sustain and depth.

Thile’s quirky style was evident in Sunday’s concert, where Bach was played amidst a broad range of pieces, including Fiona Apple’s “Fast As You Can,” the Louvin Brothers’ “Broadminded,” an upbeat Civil War song, and some of Thile’s own compositions, ranging from outgoing and playful, to introspective and heartbroken in substance, lyricism, and musicality.

What came in the middle of the set, though, was both unexpected and delightful, an “endlessly intriguing” Bach composition, as Thile put it. Playing the first four movements of Partita No. 1 in B Minor, Thile plucked non-stop for about 15 minutes, dedicating the full piece to his first theory professor, Dr. Brown, who was reportedly seated in the audience. Thile said Dr. Brown was one of the few people he’d encountered in his life who “loves music the way it should be loved.”

Love, of music and of others, was a theme for the night. Closing the show with a lighthearted encore, Thile sang of second-date romance, and a mandolinist’s technique for winning a girl’s heart — “I can play you a song on the mandolin. It’ll have too many notes, but then again, there ain’t too many folks can play too many notes on the mandolin.”

Hearkening back to a self-composed song played earlier in the set, “If You’re Gonna Leave Me (Set Me Up With One of Your Friends)”, one would think Thile was on the lookout for a date. Judging by the string of standing ovations that marked the last 20 minutes of his show, I’d say he’s probably all set on that front — crooked tie, silly songs, and all.

Now, if only more bluegrass artists made their way through Boston, we’d have ourselves an all-out shindig, ya’ll!