For a musician as accomplished as Chris Thile, performing in the newly renovated David Geffen Hall during its opening month still had an attendant sense of trepidation. Mandolin virtuoso, composer, singer, winner of Grammy Awards both with his bluegrass ensemble Punch Brothers and for collaborations with giants like Yo-Yo Ma, a question lingered in the back of his mind. How would the acoustics sound? Stepping onto the stage of the new Wu Tsai Theater for a soundcheck immediately erased any doubt. “I started playing a few notes and was like, Ahh, yes!” he recalls with a mix of enthusiasm and relief. “It is so good. The magic is there! And it hasn’t even been broken in yet.”
Breaking in the hall is exactly what Thile and company helped do in October, with the first of four performances in The 65th Street Session, the new, NY Phil–presented series that he is curating. Joined by past collaborators—jazz pianist Brad Mehldau and experimental group Tune-Yards—as well as poet Camille Rankine and surprise guests, including violinist Hilary Hahn, Thile led the audience on a peripatetic musical journey that touched on everything from Bach to Bob Dylan to Fiona Apple. He extolled the concert hall’s acoustic versatility, calling it “the Shohei Ohtani of concert halls,” a reference to the Japanese two-way baseball star who can bat and field as well as pitch. “It could handle the myriad textures we threw at it—Brad improvising on piano without amplification, very light amplification, and Tune-Yards’s use of a full drum kit and looping effects.”
Thile is the NY Phil’s Creative Partner this season—“a preposterous honor,” he says, in his self-effacing way. He explains that The 65th Street Session, a centerpiece of his Philharmonic activities, was “born of a deep love and appreciation for places where musicians are welcome to share what they love about music and to learn from each other.” He found inspiration in the long-running weekly Irish session, or seisiún, at the 11th St. Bar in the East Village, where Irish trad is the nucleus, but musical departures are sought out. The NY Phil’s series is Thile’s vision of such a session on a large scale, in a grand concert hall.
Collaboration. Planned spontaneity. These have been at the heart of Thile’s musical life for his entire career. When asked what one quality he looks for in collaborators for The 65th Street Session, he does not hesitate to answer: “Big ears. Big, wide-open, warm, welcoming ears.” That combination of technical virtuosity and open-mindedness creates music magic, or, as Thile puts it, “that beautiful circus of disparate activity.” Best of all? It’s all happening in New York City, which he is proud to call home.
In this month’s session, December 6, Thile welcomes the folk ensemble Watchhouse, singer-songwriter Sarah Jarosz, and his fellow Punch Brothers as they unwind the tangled roots of American folk music as part of their American Acoustic tour. What’s in store in the season’s final two installments, on February 14 and March 28? “All bets are off,” Thile says with a smile.