Interview with legendary lutenist Paul O’Dette

Mar 19, 2019 | blog, Le Jardin, Renaissance | 0 comments

We are thrilled to have legendary lutenist Paul O’Dette joining us for our April performances of Le Jardin de Mélodies.

One of the most influential figures in early music, O’Dette has made more than 150 recordings and has won two Grammy awards and received seven Grammy nominations. He has served as Director of Early Music at the Eastman School of Music in Boston since 1976, and is the Co-Artistic Director of the Boston Early Music Festival.

O’Dette also has a long history of performing with both David Douglass and Ellen Hargis, co-artistic directors of the Newberry Consort. In the 1980s and ’90s, O’Dette, Douglass and Hargis were part of  The King’s Noyse, an ensemble founded by Douglass that specialized in Renaissance dance music.

In 1997, the group recorded a CD called “Le Jardin de Mélodies,” which featured music from 16th century France. This recording serves as the inspiration for our April programs, which features some of the same tunes arranged for expanded vocal and instrumental forces.

This week, we caught up with O’Dette about his long love affair with the lute and why he’s excited to perform with us this April!

Q: You first started playing the electric guitar in a rock band high school in Columbus, OH. How did that lead you to playing the lute?

A: A friend of our family suggested that studying classical guitar would improve my electric guitar playing, so I signed up for classical guitar lessons. Some of the first pieces my new guitar teacher gave me to learn were transcriptions of Renaissance lute pieces. I fell in love with these pieces, but wondered, “Why am I playing these on the wrong instrument? How would they have sounded on the lute?” So I went to the local record shop and bought an LP of Julian Bream playing the lute and immediately fell in love with the sound of the instrument. I told my guitar teacher I wanted to learn to play the lute and he sold me his lute, which he had never learned to play. I became completely hooked!

Q: What do you love about playing the lute?

A: I love the sound of the instrument, the delicacy and sophistication of its timbre, and the incredibly vast, musically rich repertoire that was written for it when the lute was the most popular musical instrument. I also love history and culture, which requires researching the background of every piece. When was the music written? For what occasion? What was the effect the music was supposed to have on the listeners at the time? The more one delves into the context of the music the more depth one is able to bring to each performance.

Q: How has the early music scene changed since you started teaching in 1976, and what do you see as the state of early music today?

A: Indeed things have changed enormously since I began teaching at Eastman. The performance standards have risen enormously since then as more and more talented musicians have been able to learn from and build on the experience and expertise of previous generations. It is now possible to find excellent copies of almost every type of historical instrument, as well as outstanding teachers for each of them. When I started, there were no lute teachers so I had to teach myself, using 16th-century books as my guide. Also the music is much more readily available now than it was back then. In the old days, we had to either go to European libraries to copy out the music by hand, or order microfilms and try to locate a reader-printer to print out the films. Today, there are hundreds, if not thousands of digitized original sources available at the click of a mouse. So access to music is much easier than it used to be.

At the same time that the technical standards are higher today than they were 40 years ago, I find the level of intellectual curiosity lower. Whereas we used to read every treatise, analyze every painting, and play through every piece in every manuscript, today there is a tendency for students to just imitate what they hear on recordings. My students are always asking me what pieces they should play, and I respond that they should play through a collection of pieces to get to know the music and choose the pieces they like best. But then they return a week later having looked on YouTube to see which pieces have been recorded and they imitate that. My goal is to somehow rekindle that sense of curiosity and discovery that sparked our interest in this music to begin with.

Q: You worked with David Douglass and Ellen Hargis in various groups since 1976. What do you enjoy about working with them?

A: I’ve always enjoyed the creativity and vitality with which they approach the music. Their obsession with thoroughly researching the background of every piece provides a unique context that helps everyone in the ensemble to give the most vivid performances possible. I also love the freedom and spontaneity they bring to their music-making. Improvisation plays a key role here and they always encourage everyone to add new things each time.

Q: You’ve made numerous recordings, both solo and with other groups, over the years. What are some of your favorite projects that you’ve ever been involved with?

A: I have been fortunate enough to participate in a lot of wonderful projects with many outstanding colleagues. Among my favorite projects were my recording of the complete lute works of John Dowland and my solo recording of the lute music of Daniel Bachelar, which was nominated for a Grammy as best classical solo instrumental CD of 2006. But I also loved the many opera recordings I have made for the Boston Early Music Festival, including Steffani’s Niobe, which is such an amazing piece of music, and Charpentier’s La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers, which won the Grammy for best opera recording of 2014. Orpheus’s laments in the underworld are among my desert island selections! And the many recordings with the King’s Noyse with David and Ellen are among my favorite projects, including “Le Jardin de Mélodies,” which is the program we will be reprising in Chicago soon!

Q: This upcoming concert will feature music that was popular among the French royal court in the 16th century. How was the lute typically featured in this type of music?

A: The lute was the most popular instrument at this time so it played a wide range of different types of music from the solo repertoire (consisting of contrapuntal fantasias, arrangements of vocal pieces, both sacred and secular, and dance music), songs for lute and voice, or adding the lute to ensemble works, both vocal and instrumental. You could say that the role of the lute in the 16th century was analogous to that of the piano in the 19th century: It played all types of music in every combination of voices and instruments, except for very loud brass or reed instruments that would drown it out!

Q: What are you excited about for this concert?

A: I loved playing this program back in 1997 when David and Ellen first put it together and it will be fun to revisit it. I don’t often get the chance to play the Renaissance guitar or cittern these days, but as they were so important in Renaissance France they are an important element in this program. Great music with great performers is always an exciting experience!

Don’t miss a chance to see this world-class lutenist perform with us. Get your tickets for Le Jardin de Mélodies, happening April 5th, 6th, and 7th!

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