Mandolinist Chris Thile and Aoife O’Donovan defy genres in Hopkins Center performance

by Elle Muller | 11/2/20 2:00am

screen-shot-2020-10-22-at-10-55-13-am
Source: Courtesy of Michael Bodel

On Oct. 21, mandolinist and singer-songwriter Chris Thile and singer-songwriter Aoife O’Donovan performed live from Brooklyn for the Hopkins Center for the Arts’ Hop@Home program. The event, which the Hop had originally planned to be performed in person, took place through the Hop’s YouTube channel.

The performance, which currently has over 400 views on YouTube, included music from Thile’s and O’Donovan’s collaborative albums. With Thile on mandolin and vocals and O’Donovan joining Thile for a portion of the performance on vocals and guitar, the duo performed a variety of music across genres, innovatively combining folk and classical music. 

Though the live performance was streamed on the Hop’s YouTube channel, Thile and O’Donovan had a commanding stage presence, pairing fun, fast-paced staccato moments with melodic songs and beautiful harmonies. The variety of styles and genres melded together to create an invigorating performance. Meanwhile, audience members were able to comment on the performance in real time, allowing for audience engagement through the virtual setting. 

Early in the performance, Thile blended a Bach piece with his pop-rock singer-songwriter ballad “Balboa,” which Thile described as a “patchwork suite of sorts.” Listening to Bach played on a mandolin was certainly captivating, but the performance became much more entertaining when Thile began to sing “Balboa” on top of the Bach, perfectly blending the melodies and styles into one another.

When O’Donovan joined the performance, the duo sang “Elephant In The Room" from Thile's 2017 album "Thank You For Listening." The duet, which Thile said he wrote in 2016, was an amusing song perfectly timed for the upcoming election and Thanksgiving holiday, painting a picture of carefully skirting around politics at the dinner table. The upbeat melodies and humorous lyrics were enjoyable to listen to, and Thile and O’Donovan both had great energy that bounced off one another. 

O’Donovan’s song “Porch Light” was a melancholy contrast to the lightheartedness of “Elephant in the Room.” A melodic duet, “Porch Light” perfectly blended O’Donovan’s guitar, Thile’s mandolin and vocals from both performers.

The final song, “Here and Heaven,” which Thile and O’Donovan wrote together, balanced the duo’s impressive vocals and Thile’s mandolin. Although the studio version features more instrumental backing, the live version highlighted Thile and O’Donovan’s powerful voices as well as Thile’s masterful mandolin playing.

Thile’s ability to play the mandolin at rapid tempos impressed many of the event attendees.

“It’s like he pressed fast forward … except he’s actually playing that fast,” one audience member commented on the YouTube stream.

Megan Bond ’24, who attended the event, said the musicians delivered an engaging performance despite the virtual medium.

“Watching it through a screen makes it much harder to connect with other members in the audience and have your emotion build off the energy in the audience,” Bond said. “But [Thile] was very exciting; it was something that could hold my attention over YouTube, which is hard to find with other musical performances.”

Both Thile and O’Donovan have a long history of crossing genres. Thile has been a part of multiple bands, including the progressive acoustic “Nickel Creek” and the acoustic folk progressive bluegrass “Punch Brothers.” Thile also worked as the host of a radio variety show called “Live From Here With Chris Thile,” formerly named “A Prairie Home Companion.”

Similarly, O’Donovan has also been a part of multiple bands, including the progressive bluegrass string band “Crooked Still” and folk group “I’m With Her.” O’Donovan has also performed with the Boston Pops Orchestra and the Utah Symphony Orchestra in addition to singing and recording with a wide variety of artists. 

Hop director of external affairs Michael Bodel described how this crossing of genres has been at the forefront of Hop programming this fall. 

“We try to present a programming balance that includes cultures throughout the world … and this show is just contributing to what we hope is a very balanced season,” Bodel said. “[Thile] is fairly well known for his collaborations that span different genres and different sorts of artists, and we dig those artists that are trying to bust across genres and bring others into the fold.” 

Since the onset of COVID-19 in the spring, the Hop has been redefining what successful events look like in a virtual setting. Kaj Johnson ’22, a Hop fellow for programming and engagement, commented on how the Hop’s visiting performers have made the best of the virtual settings in which they must perform due to COVID-19.

“I have been really impressed with how people take those constraints and make something really cool,” Johnson said.

Bodel said more people have been able to experience performances by watching the recording via the Hop’s YouTube videos, which the Hop began linking through event pages on their website starting this fall.

“We do have a tremendous amount of success in the immediate days following [the event], allowing folks to rewatch something if they missed it,” Bodel said. “Views for digital events almost double after the live event is over in those few days and the week following.” 

Advertise your student group in The Dartmouth for free!