Chris Thile played three musical numbers on mandolin during the Idyllwild Elementary School Winter Music Program on Dec. 11, 1987, for a standing-room-only audience. He was accompanied by his father, Scott, on guitar. After resounding applause at the end of the numbers, Principal George Nettleman commented that 6-year-old fingers aren’t supposed to move so fast. Town Crier file photo

Two of 23 MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant recipients for 2012 have Idyllwild connections — mandolin virtuoso, singer and composer Chris Thile grew up in Idyllwild and showed talent as a musician at a very early age. Thile is a New York City resident currently on a national tour with the Punch Brothers.


Claire Chase, a 1996 graduate of Idyllwild Arts Academy, is a flutist and arts entrepreneur who divides her time between New York and Chicago where she is an advocate for new music.

Recipients receive $500,000 unrestricted grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in recognition of their extraordinary accomplishments in their fields, to be used in any way they choose, Thile is especially honored since he is also this year’s youngest recipient.

Thile said in a MacArthur Foundation interview about the honor, “It’s such a vote of confidence. The first thought is just, ‘I don’t deserve this. Surely there’s been some mistake. You do know I play the mandolin, right?’ The next thing is, ‘I must work hard enough to deserve this; I have to step up my game.’”

Thile’s game is pretty solid, as the “genius grant” attests. For more than 15 years he played with the band Nickel Creek, released three albums and sold two million records. Grammy nominated Punch Brothers is a collection of four other virtuosos, fiddler Gabe Witcher, banjo player Noam Pikelny, bassist Paul Kowert and guitarist Chris Eldridge. Thile’s mandolin concerto, “Ad Astra er Alas Porci” (“To the Stars on the Wings of a Pig”) was first performed in 2009 and received its Carnegie Hall premiere earlier this year.

In awarding the grant, the foundation described Thile as “a young mandolin virtuoso and composer whose lyrical fusion of traditional bluegrass with elements from a range of other musical traditions is giving rise to a new genre of contemporary music. With a broad outlook that encompasses progressive bluegrass, classical, rock and jazz, Thile is transcending the borders of conventionally circumscribed genres in compositions for his own ensembles and frequent cross-genre collaborations. … He is creating a distinctly American canon for the mandolin and a new musical aesthetic for performers and audiences alike.

Thile has his eye on one purchase, a vintage 1925 Gibson F5 that costs anywhere from $100,000 to $200,000. Otherwise, he said he would be conservative with the balance of the grant.