Early Music Now

The lute made “easie”

Early Music Now presented lutenist Paul O'Dette and singer Ellen Hargis in expressive Italian songs from the 17th century.

By - Mar 17th, 2013 02:35 pm

Thomas Mace, in of the more peculiar conceits from his 17th century musical treatise, The Lute Made Easie, has a friendly chat with his instrument:


Ellen Hargis and Paul O’Dette

Mace: What is the cause, My Dear-Renowned Lute, thou art of late so Silent, and so Mute?

Lute (annoyed): What need you ask These Questions why tis so? Since ‘tis too obvious for All to know, The world is grown so Slight: full of New Fangles, and takes their Chief Delight in Jingle-Jangels.

Mace (reassuringly) : Cheer up. Brave Soul! And know that some yet living who for Thee will take such care…that thou shalt be Restored thy former Glory and be Eternize’d to Eternal Story.

Early Music Now’s concert Saturday afternoon at UWM’s spacious Zelazo Center proved Mace not only a scholar and poet, but also a prophet. The distinguished Paul O’Dette, armed this day with his theorbo (bass lute) is as predicted by the optimistic Mace: A musician who takes “such care.” Who has done more in our time to give lute playing the glory it deserves? And who, more than O’Dette, is able to make it tell an “Eternal story”?

With him was Ellen Hargis, as distinguished a vocalist O’Dette is a lutenist. To hear the two together made their Early Music Now audience fortunate indeed, to hear completely assured, completely in-place music-making. Superlative chops and profound sensitivity certainly help, but there was another advantage: Hargis and O’Dette have worked together for many years, and it showed. Their longterm collaboration made their performance not only beautiful, but wise.

They applied their wisdom to remarkable Italian vocal music of the early 17th century. As the program notes (and several generations of undergraduates have learned in their Introduction to Music History classes), early baroque Italian vocal music differs from the previous generation of madrigals as much as the music of Lawrence Welk differs from that of Frank Zappa. The charming strophic airs of John Dowland and the sprightly nymphs of John Farmer were old-hat by the 17th century.

For the inventive Italian composers of the Florentine Camerata, text was the thing. Their music had a point to make; people don’t weep and rip out their hair in measured strophic song accompanied by the gentle counterpoints of viola da gambas. They express their passions in recitatives, sighs, and sudden outbreaks of lyricism over descending bass lines. Hargis sang such music Saturday, with O’Dette’s brilliant, tasteful accompaniment. She gave us much to remember, but what I remember first are her long notes. She draws them out exquisitely  and they are unforgettably expressive.

The composers of the Camerata did not concern themselves with sadness, lost love, battles and the gates of hell all the time. What a nice change of pace to hear Barbara Strozzi’s L’Astratto and Antonio Cesti’s Aspettate! Adesso canto! These witty cantatas deal with a more prosaic matter: “What will we sing tonight?” How ingenious of Strozzi to set to music the rehearsal, including the tantrums of a diva as she struggles to find the right songs for a gig. When she can’t, she throws a hissy fit: “I should rip this one up,” she says of one prospective piece. And Hargis did. Hargis folded another score into a paper airplane and sailed it into the audience — certainly a first in the staid confines of the Zelazo Center concert hall.

Cesti’s cantata went a step further; the singer expresses opinions about the music she’s singing. What’s more exciting than music criticism — set to music? ”Let’s forget about these love-songs; everybody is sick of listening to that stuff. There’s nothing to it but ‘little eyes,’ ‘my heart,’ ‘to die’ and other such rubbish….”

Such wit set by great composers has a way of climbing to a higher plain. Losing Eurydice is a tragedy, but not being able to find a good tune to sing isn’t much fun either. Who says that the tribulations of daily life can’t begin to take on mythic proportions? In this concert, Strozi and Cesti, Hargis, and Odette made that happen.

Also on the program: a rather upbeat setting, given the subject matter, of the Orfeo story by Alessandro Scarlatti. I say “upbeat” because the text deals only with Eurydice’s death and Orfeo’s resolve to fetch her back from the Underworld and leaves the rest of the sad tale untold. It ended with a cheerful major chord (via a Picardy third.) It was the last thing I expected to hear at the end of a story about Orfeo.

Two dance suites of Alessandro Piccinini represented the solo theorbo repertoire. This music asks the player to travel all over the vast expanse of the theorbo’s finger-board, which from my vantage point looked almost as long as the Kinnickinnic River. O’Dette did this with an ease only attained by the greatest players of the instrument.

Thomas Mace was right. Next time your lute complains to you that there isn’t enough talent going on, take it to hear Ellen Hargis and Paul O’Dette. That should shut it up.

Next up for Early Music Now: The Rose Ensemble, April 20.

0 thoughts on “Early Music Now: The lute made “easie””

  1. Anonymous says:

    A witty & perceptive review–what better way to tackle the early 17th-c Italian song. Sorry I could not hear the concert, but glad Jon did & wrote about it. Thanks.

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