September 26, 2009
By Claire Sykes
Slap an expert orchestra behind a world-class banjoist, double bassist, tabla player and mandolin player and you’ve got one unforgettable night with the Oregon Symphony. Will I ever be able to sleep? Not without hearing in my head Bela Fleck‘s anything-but-Appalachian banjo, that soulful swoon sweeping off Edgar Meyer‘s bow, Zakir Hussain‘s complex colors in a single beat, and those finger-blurring mandolin pickings from Chris Thile.
The mandolin took its folk and bluegrass roots into unexpected realms in the West Coast premiere of Mandolin Concerto, by Thile, member of the progressive bluegrass group, Punch Brothers. His delicate, precise plucking threaded through the orchestra’s string section, Thile himself moving with the music as if his whole body could make such beautiful sounds. And I don’t think that smile left him the whole evening.
In their collaboration, The Melody of Rhythm: Triple Concerto for Banjo, Tabla and Double Bass, the Fleck-Hussain-Meyer trinity curled around violins, flutes and French horns, while they steered their virtuosities through classical, jazz and bluegrass terrains, nodding to ragas along the way, and returning often to a running melody line that felt both uplifting and urgent.
But it was after the orchestra exited for the evening and the stage went dark, except for colored lights turned on the four master musicians, that the party really got going. The foursome’s near-hour-long jam session reached the right combination of wood, metal and goatskin to pull from the audience the most fervent of whoops and whistles, not to mention a hearty—and well-deserved—standing ovation. None of us wanted the night to end. But as soon as it does and I get out of bed in the morning, I’m cranking up that CD I bought.
© Claire Sykes. All rights reserved.