This week, it’s all about the mandolin, that wonderful teardrop-shaped stringed instrument that gives bluegrass and acoustic music its high notes.

Few people are more adept at coaxing beautiful sounds from the instrument than Chris Thile, a 29-year-old plucker from California.

Thile is best known for his work in the bluegrass band Nickel Creek, but his resume is much deeper. He has a reputation for being an inventive and daring musician, and these days is fronting the five-piece band the Punch Brothers. Thile also works with symphony orchestras across the nation.

This week in Portland, he’ll do both.

The Punch Brothers perform at 8 p.m. Friday at Merrill Auditorium in a concert presented by Portland Ovations. A week from today, Thile will sit in with the Portland Symphony Orchestra, also at Merrill, to present his Mandolin Concerto, which the PSO co-commissioned.

The events are part of a weekend of mandolin madness in Portland. At 8 p.m. Saturday, Space Gallery hosts Mandolin Fest featuring the Al Hawkes Trio and performances by mandolin players from Jerks of Grass, the Tricky Britches, the Grassholes, the Intergalactic Yurt Band and others.

Thile is not scheduled to perform at Space, but no one would be shocked if he showed up with his instrument in hand.

The events are part of an uncommon but perfectly logical alliance among the PSO, Portland Ovations and Space. Thile and his music exist in many worlds, so it makes sense, economically and otherwise, for these groups to collaborate to bring him to town.

It’s great for Thile, too.

He enjoys playing all kinds of music, and doesn’t necessarily distinguish between bluegrass, classical, jazz or any other style.

“Labels are arbitrary,” Thile said by phone from New York, where he now resides. “Labels are the work of well-intentioned musical curators, but they are not relevant to people who are attempting to create new music. There needn’t be these separate entities in these strange, preset performance conventions.”

The way he sees it, there isn’t a huge amount of difference between the music he makes with the Punch Brothers and the music he’ll be making with the orchestra. “It’s all about melody, rhythm and structure and the various ways you put it all together,” he said.

Thile is eager to begin breaking down the walls among musical genres. “It’s going to be a lot of fun,” he said of his Portland musical residency.

First up is the Punch Brothers.

This band came together in 2006 following the demise of Nickel Creek. In its day, the latter was one of the top young bluegrass bands in the country. And we do mean young.

Nickel Creek formed when Thile was 8, and he was an accomplished player by that young age. At age 12, he won the national mandolin championship in Winfield, Kan., a highly competitive and prestigious competition.


Nickel Creek released several records, all highly acclaimed. But as accomplished as the band was, it was a stop along the way for Thile. These days, his heart and soul are fully vested in the Punch Brothers.

“At the end of the day, the Punch Brothers is the most rewarding aspect of my musical life,” he said. “I hesitate to say anything like that ever, but I think it really is true. It’s such a tightly knit group of guys. At this point, we’ve been making music for about four years, and I think we’re really starting to hit our stride.”

The band also includes Gabe Witcher, Chris Eldridge, Paul Kowert and Noam Pikelny. Thile is the star of the group, but he doesn’t feel that way himself. He says the Punch Brothers is a true collaborative effort.

“I really do feel like the result is greater than the sum of the parts,” he said. “What the five of us do together is really unique and direct. You can’t be as abstract if you are working with four other guys. You have to communicate, and you have to communicate as a whole.

“There is potential for greater, stronger expression with a group of guys if they are united with a musical concept. I think there is stronger potential expression.”

Officially, the Punch Brothers have released one CD to date – 2008’s “Punch.” But the band also played with Thile on his solo record, “How to Grow a Woman From the Ground,” and has just finished recording its third record, “Anti-Fogmatic,” which is scheduled for a May release.

“Anti-Fogmatic” is a 19th-century term for a drink of liquor that was taken to fend off the effects of fog or dampness. Back in the day, one might take a drink before going out to work in rough weather. “We feel like music is often used that way,” said Thile. “Certainly, there are a lot of characters throughout the course of this record who could use a good fogmatic.”

On Friday, the Punch Brothers will feature music from that upcoming record, as well as older material and an array of spirited cover songs.


On Sunday with the PSO, the setting will be a little more formal, although the music should be just as lively. Thile wrote his Mandolin Concerto a while back. Several orchestras around the country commissioned him to write it, including the PSO and the Winston-Salem Symphony. Robert Moody, the PSO’s music director, also is music director in Winston-Salem.

Moody will not be at the podium Sunday. Instead, Scott Terrell, music director at the Lexington Philharmonic in Kentucky, will step in as guest conductor. Also on the program is Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” and music by Arnold Schoenberg.

Thile enjoys toggling among his many musical outlets, and the orchestra opportunity is too good for him to allow to pass. He’s always loved classical music, and the mandolin lends itself perfectly to an orchestral setting.

“The concerto thing serves to keep the band dynamic healthy,” he said. “I need an outlet for that part of my musical expression, because it is something I really want to do. To be able to work with an orchestra means I do not have to impose my will on my colleagues in the band. It’s great for me, and I think it’s good for the band.”

Thile feels blessed. He’s living a dreamy musical life, because he’s able to move freely among his many interests.

“It’s a good life,” he said. “It’s an overly busy life, but a good life. I have to learn to say ‘no’ more often. People ask me to do something, and I say, ‘Yes, of course. I’d love to.’ “

It’s a good thing for Portland audiences that he hasn’t learned to say no quite yet.


Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

[email protected]


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