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Gerald Carpenter: CAMA Bringing Mandolin Virtuoso Chris Thile to Lobero

Chris Thile
Chris Thile's playing has caused a reorganization of public attitudes about the mandolin. (Brantley Gutierrez photo)

The Community Arts Music Association's next Masterseries concert, a performance by the young mandolin maven Chris Thile, will take place at 8 p.m. Tuesday in the Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St.

The epicenter of the program will be Johann Sebastian Bach's Sonata No. 1 in G-Minor, BWV 1001 and Partita No. 1 in B-Minor, BWV 1002, which are both on his new Nonesuch album (what a joy to encounter a label I can recognize!), "while also exploring his own compositions and contemporary music," according to CAMA's description.

The mandolin is a member of the lute family that looks and sounds like a cross between a lute and a ukulele. It has four pairs of strings and is tuned the same as a violin — each pair in unison. Once the strings were of gut and strummed with a quill; modern mandolins have steel strings and are played with a plastic pick.

The high, peculiar sonorities of the instrument have kept away all but three composers of genius: Antonio Vivaldi, Ludwig van Beethoven and Gustav Mahler. In this country, the mandolin is associated mainly with folk music, especially with bluegrass ensembles.

Because of its small size, particularly when played by a large, male musician, the instrument has been overemployed to produce comic visual effects. Bill Monroe, often called the father of bluegrass music, played a Gibson F-5 mandolin and set the standard of perfection for serious players — nobody laughed at Monroe. Jethro Burns, of Homer and Jethro, is generally credited as being the first to play jazz on a mandolin. Before he joined with Roger McGuinn and others to found The Byrds, Chris Hillman played mandolin in several bluegrass bands and was also known for playing John Coltrane solos on the instrument.

Thile, first with the band Nickel Creek, and now with his band Punch Brothers and/or his burgeoning career as a solo recitalist, has come into our musical skies like a comet and liberated the mandolin from just about any ghetto — traditional bluegrass, classical, contemporary pop, rock, etc. — in which it has languished heretofore. Whether he ends up founding a new school of mandolin virtuosity or remains a unique phenomenon, people will no longer be able to look down their noses at the mandolin.  

Tickets to Thile are $33 and $43, and they can be purchased at the Lobero box office at 805.963.0761 or online by clicking here.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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