The list of composers and virtuoso musicians who have, throughout history, adapted the music of J.S. Bach from one instrument to another, or altered his arrangements or orchestration, or repurposed portions of Bach’s music for different scores, is pretty impressive.
Franz Liszt, Edward Elgar, classical guitarist Andrés Segovia, the Modern Jazz Quartet and banjoist Béla Fleck are all part of a long, diverse roster of Bach transcribers going back centuries.
Add to that prestigious crowd the mandolinist Chris Thile, longtime member of the progressive acoustic band Nickel Creek, and now a renowned string player, vocalist and composer for the critically acclaimed folk-bluegrass quintet Punch Brothers. Thile has also been a solo artist since his preteen years of impressively eclectic bent.
He’s also a 2012 MacArthur Fellow — recipient of the so-called “genius grant.”
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Thile appears at Meany Hall on Tuesday in a solo recital, performing music from his new mandolin album, “Bach: Sonatas & Partitas Vol. 1.” The release, produced by Thile’s longtime mentor and collaborator, double bassist and composer Edgar Meyer, includes three works written for solo violin: Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001; Partita No. 1 in B minor, BWV 1002; and Sonata No. 2 in A minor, BWV 1003.
Thile’s affinity for Bach began in childhood, when his fascination with the composer broadened his own ambitions as a musician. Among other things, it led him to learn to read music.
One landmark recording had a special impact on Thile: Glenn Gould’s 1955 debut album, “Bach: The Goldberg Variations.”
“That woke me up to a world beyond the music I had been playing, which was largely bluegrass and derivations of the form,” says Thile. “Up to that point, classical music had just seemed unfocused rhythmically to me. But the Gould recording changed all that. For me, it turned Bach back into music as opposed to something called ‘classical’ music.
“I’m generally wary of radical departures from a score, but I don’t change anything on the album or in concert. I’m playing the same notes Bach wrote for solo violin. It’s a straight reading of the score. In that sense, I’m not playing a transcription.”
Given his nonclassical background, Thile believes he has a novel perspective on giving Bach a different context.
“I’m interested in what happens when a piece is performed on a different instrument,” he says. “When you hear a Bach violin piece, you’re not only hearing his music, you’re hearing a summary of violin performance practices for the last 250 years.
“I thought divorcing one’s ears from that expectation is really interesting. All of a sudden your attention is on the music, not on, well, Heifetz did it this way, Stern played it that way.”
A frequent collaborator — Thile spent part of the summer touring with Meyer, Yo-Yo Ma and Stuart Duncan in support of their “The Goat Rodeo Sessions” release — the mandolinist will be facing a Meany audience alone.
“Playing solo can be both liberating and terrifying,” he says. “You know that if you suck, then the show sucks. On the other hand, it can make a performance communal. Because there’s no one on stage for me to fraternize with, I end up looking to the audience to have an experience with them. It’s almost as if they become the band.”
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org