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Interview: Chris Thile

The Punch Brothers phenom shows off his orchestral maneuvers

There's busy, and then there's Chris Thile. A California-born singer, songwriter and mandolinist still fondly remembered for his 18-year tenure in the groundbreaking newgrass trio Nickel Creek, Thile (pronounced "THEE-lee"), 31, now fronts a band of his own, Punch Brothers. Who's Feeling Young Now?, the group's new album, came out on Nonesuch in February, heralded by a white-hot prerelease show for fans at Rockwood Music Hall's Stage 2. The album is Thile's third release in less than a year, following Sleep with One Eye Open, a duo date with Rockwood roots kingpin Michael Daves, and The Goat Rodeo Sessions, an all-star hoedown with Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan and Edgar Meyer.

Factor in a busy touring schedule, which includes three disparate New York engagements between this week and a Punch Brothers show at the Town Hall in late April, and you get the impression that Thile is continually on the go. "I guess I am working pretty much all the time," he admits on the phone from a tour stop in Seattle, fighting off a passing bug to meet his professional obligations. "The thing is, I've spent my whole life loving and wanting to be involved in the making of good music. And in the last couple of years, there've been so many opportunities I would have just killed for as a very young man growing up, wanting to be a musician, wanting nothing more than to rub shoulders with guys like Edgar and Bla [Fleck]. The last year has been an opportunity for me to exercise all facets of my musicianship."

That urge takes on especially broad dimensions during a spate of upcoming shows. On Sunday 18, Thile joins the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, a versatile, conductorless New York classical ensemble, for a mix of traditional folk tunes and compositions by Copland and John Adams at Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn. Thile and Orpheus meet again at Carnegie Hall on March 24, when the orchestra plays Thile's Mandolin Concerto with the composer as soloist, surrounded with Bernstein, Clint Needham and Copland again.

Emboldened by Meyer, a virtuoso bassist admired equally in roots-music and classical circles, Thile wrote his concerto for 2009 performances with seven American orchestras. Subtitled "Ad astra per alas porci" ("To the Stars on the Wings of a Pig"), the three-movement work attests to a classical itch that first bit Thile in a teenage encounter with Glenn Gould's incandescent recordings of Bach's Goldberg Variations. In orchestrating the concerto, Thile pored over scores by Mahler and Bartk, scrutinizing harmonies and techniques.

For Orpheus, an ensemble with a long tradition of playing with artists from outside its milieu, working with Thile is a no-brainer. "Chris is an amazing musician," says Ronnie Bauch, a longtime Orpheus violinist and spokesman. "As a mandolin player, he's an extraordinary virtuoso. His music draws on so many different traditions; in certain ways it's very American, but in other ways it reminds me of the way composers like Bartk and Kodly looked to folk traditions."

Thile confesses that the concerto was partly a reaction to the simpler kind of music he'd played in Nickel Creek, something that was initially also true of Punch Brothers. But with each successive record, and with more time spent together, the band has become increasingly democratic and its music intentionally more approachable. Like its predecessors, Who's Feeling Young Now? resists pigeonholing as a bluegrass session, despite the substantial genre credentials of Thile and his bandmates: fiddler Gabe Witcher, banjoist Noam Pikelny, guitarist Chris Eldridge and bassist Paul Kowert. True, the band struts its stuff like a hickory Maserati taking hairpin turns on wheels of fire. But the album is also a collection of thoroughly contemporary songs about living, loving and liberally drinking on the Lower East Side, sweetly harmonized and aimed straight at the heart.

To judge by the ardent, diverse crowd that crammed into Rockwood in early February, those efforts are helping the band hit its target squarely. "This tour has been a serious source of validation as far as Punch Brothers' activities are concerned," says Thile. "I'm so proud of this band, and how my four bandmates have helped me transcend my tendencies toward dictatorship. Through their musicality and intuition, they've shown me the light as to how letting go of things is more likely to enable transcendence, both personal and communal."

Galapagos Art Space; Sun 18; See complete event information

Carnegie Hall; Mar 24

The Town Hall; Apr 26

Follow Steve Smith on Twitter: @nightafternight

Buy Who's Feeling Young Now? on iTunes

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