When it comes to provocatively suggestive titles, composers’ intentions are rarely implemented as successfully as, for example, Scriabin’s “Poem of Ecstasy” or PDQ Bach’s loving parody of Philip Glass “Einstein on the Fritz”. But in the case of Copland’s beloved “Appalachian Spring,” which closed Tuesday night’s Hollywood Bowl program at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the composer was always puzzled by audiences who told him at various times how vividly the ballet score recalled the mountain air and Scents of the Appalachian Mountains in Spring.
When Copland wrote the score in Hollywood during World War II, he had no such repercussions in mind. It was simply a ballet for Martha Graham, who staged it in an unspecified Shaker Village and only afterwards chose “Appalachian Spring” as the title.
But the first half of Tuesday’s program happened to be the West Coast premiere of a new mandolin concerto with a crazy title. And leave it to an extroverted, outstanding and spectacular mandolinist to have already lived up to that title with his performance on stage. That is not completely right. Chris Thile didn’t walk, he ran, hovered and kicked his heels excitedly.
The full title of the concert is “Achtung! A narrative song cycle for extroverted mandolin and orchestra.” The program booklet stated a running time of 42 minutes. it was longer Of course it was. Attracting attention is natural.
Throughout the performance, Thile plays his mandolin with and sometimes against the orchestra. But “Achtung!” is actually not a concert. Thile sings most of the time, but again this is hardly a formal song cycle. Songs seem neither to begin nor to end, but rather emerge naturally from the narrative, so that singing and speaking are one. Who knows what that is? Call it a foray.
Ramble Thile does. And noodles. And fool around. He makes us laugh. He has a sentimental side and a biting side. Its narrative is pervasive and often incoherent. This isn’t the thile that can make Bach captivating on the mandolin, rather he turns to his bluegrass and mandolin roots as well as jazz. “Attention!” It hardly resembles Thile’s more classical, earlier Mandolin Concerto performed by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in 2010. That program just happened to (or maybe not) include Appalachian Spring.
The essence of Appalachian Spring is to propose renewal for an America in crisis through living simply and going back to basics. Ballads and fiddle melodies, as well as many different styles of music from Africa and Europe, took on new and different dimensions in traditional Appalachian music. The mandolin played a part. Thile goes one big step further and turns the mandolin into a real shapeshifter.
Born in Oceanside, Thile discovered bluegrass when he was two years old at a local pizza joint. When he was four, his family moved to the mountains (Idyllwild) and made their way to Kentucky a decade later. All of this flows through the four sections of “Achtung!”
First, however, Thile said he thought he was going to sing a folk song by Pete Seeger, “Little Birdie.” When the concert started, he stopped tuning and started over. Then he did it again. Hoax. Told us how he met his idol, Carrie Fisher, in a bar in San Diego when he was 24. Cue “Star Wars” from the orchestra. There was a joke about a toilet plunger mic that went by too quickly.
In the following streams of consciousness, this, that, and the next flew by, laced with something in the orchestra. True to his San Diego roots, Thile asked for an IPA, which he sipped and handed to the evening’s conductor, Teddy Abrams, who took a sip. “Carrie Freaking Fisher” became the chorus and Thile played “Princess Leia’s Theme” on the mandolin with eerie beauty. The Bowl is home to John Williams and Star Wars, but that was something new. When it came to a duel between violin and mandolin with the deputy concertmaster Bing Wang, the violinist amazed.
It was difficult to gauge what the orchestra was up to. Thile got everyone’s attention, be it the amplification, his extraordinary mandolin playing, his bantering singing, his prances, his absent-minded storytelling. Still, something happened to the orchestra and Thile seemed excited. Abrams was busy. A distracted listener must have missed a lot.
Thile ended with a chorus of “Little Birdie,” this time as a singalong, and kept coming back to the lyrics: “I’ve a short time to be here/ And a long time to be gone.” As in life, the madness morphed in a moving way into a frighteningly deep melancholy.
The comforting encore was Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” Think twice about it, though, and what comes to mind are Dylan’s lyrics to “Ballad of a Thin Man”: “Something’s happening here/ But you don’t know what it is/ Do you Mr. Jones?” “Attention !” is a “Thin Man” concert.
Abrams did not let go of this deeper mood in the second half of the program, which began with the world premiere of Jonathan Bailey Holland’s “The Comfort of Asymmetry”. Another title to consider. A clock ticks, aided by a sparkling percussion section just a little off. The orchestra is awash with drones and sweet chords that give it a spiritual awe. The music is only with us for a short time (five minutes) and doesn’t care about the clock.
Abrams happens to be one of America’s most exciting young music directors. He does wonders with the Louisville Orchestra and is a fascinating composer himself. His latest piano concerto, which he wrote and re-recorded for Yuja Wang, is wowing all over the map in its own way.
He conducted Copland’s suite from Appalachian Spring with a decidedly springy step. The lively rhythmic sections were wilder than usual, a reminder of Copland’s original intent.
The five variations on the Shaker anthem “Simple Gifts”, for which the score is best known, helped set in perspective Thile’s “Little Birdie” return to the ethos of simplicity. The quiet beginning and ending of “Appalachian Spring” became pure magic. Rarely do attention-grabbing bowl concerts end by asking us to focus our attention primarily inward.