With a dulcimer’s delicacy, the mandolin quietly sounded the final chord of the Adagio from J.S. Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in G minor, a work written for unaccompanied violin. The soloist, Chris Thile, reveled in the slow pulse, his wide eyes and facial expressions keyed into every surprise in Bach’s harmonic sleight of hand. The room was rapt attention, but instead of the gentle repetitive chiming of the Fuga that follows, Thile wailed-out the title line from a Louvin Brothers’ cowboy-gospel tune, “That word, ‘Broadminded’ is spelled S-I-N.” The song preaches dire Baptist warnings about falling off the straight and narrow; all the while Thile’s lawless fill-ins and break-outs blazed hot as hell. It was delicious satire — “sin with a grin” in the words of Ogden Nash — but the moment signified much more.
After a musical jackpot week for Santa Barbara, the word ‘broadminded’ is clearly spelled N-O-W. On Wednesday, the contemporary classical sextet yMusic tastily cradled Gabriel Kahane’s cerebral minstrelsy at SOhO, but also laid down its own Steve Reich-like grooves. On Friday, Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in G minor once more found voice — and again not on violin, but marimba — courtesy of Ji Hye Jung and Adrian Spence’s always forward-leaning Camerata Pacifica. As for Thile, we can be nearly certain that in CAMA’s 95 years of superb classical programming, no performance of Bach’s Sonata No.1 has ever yet been cut into by newgrass, let alone articulated on mandolin.
Like cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Thile’s sheer brilliance has earned him a pass to cross genres and mix his own blends. But unlike Ma, Thile did not start classical and go colloquial, but swam the stream in the opposite direction — and to do that credibly takes pluck. A bluegrass whiz kid, he fell in love with Bach early on, and his association with mentors like Ma and bassist Edgar Meyer has helped the ferment. But it was only last year that the stuff was served up on CD, and as was clear from Tuesday’s performance, we ain’t talkin’ moonshine. The G minor Sonata and the Partita No. 1 in B minor formed the backbone of Thile’s solo set, served straight-up, literate, and reverential. But all of this was masterfully offset by the most bodacious break-outs into songs from projects and peeps like Nickel Creek, the Punch Brothers, Goat Rodeo Sessions, Michael Daves, and Fiona Apple. And then there were Thile’s daze-inducing mandolin improvisations, where time and ideas were sliced, spliced, and remolded in an instants — not unlike Bach’s own fluency. In fact, if there is one thing above all else that this phase of Chris Thile’s career does for us, it pulls the stuffing from a bewigged burgher image of J.S. Bach, and aligns the Master with youth, wit, and whimsy.