Lute Society of America:
a conversation with Paul O'Dette
By Daniel Hathaway
Among the distinguished lutenists who will appear in seven recitals during the Lute Society of America's Summer Seminar in Harkness Chapel at CWRU this week is Paul O'Dette, who will play a solo recital on Sunday evening, June 24 and join soprano Ellen Hargis for a duo recital on Tuesday evening, June 26.
A native of Columbus, Ohio, where he initially encountered plucked instruments as guitarist in a rock band, O'Dette soon switched his enthusiasms to the lute family, developed an international career and has appeared in more than 120 recordings. He is now co-director of the biennial Boston Early Music Festival and professor of lute and director of the early music program at the Eastman School of Music. We reached him by phone in Rochester.
Daniel Hathaway: What have you planned for your solo recital in Cleveland?
Paul O'Dette: What I'm doing is a program of German and Alsatian music from around 1600. This is part of a project initiated by a festival director in Alsace who after my concert last October said, "Oh, I'd love to have you come back. Our theme is German music. Can you something for us?" And I said, I think I can do better than that because not only is there a lot of German Renaissance lute music that's never performed, there was also a thriving lute culture in Alsace at that time, and I can make it regionally and locally interesting by including some music that was published in Strasbourg at the time. So it's music that is probably the least often played of all Renaissance lute music — for various reasons including the lack of modern editions of the music, the fact that it was often notated in German lute tabulature, which most people don't read, the fact that there isn't a well-known composer to market with — there's not a Dowland or a Francesco da Milano that everybody knows — but nevertheless, the music is extremely high quality and quite varied and cosmopolitan as well because the Germans were already in the late 16th century absorbing as much Italian and French influence as they could, and they were working with French dance music and Italian toccatas and Italian fantasias and so on. So it's quite interesting repertoire.
DH: Was Alsace as much of a synthesis between France and Germany then as it is now?
POD: It's always been right on the border so that there have been French and German elements there, but at that time it was pretty much a Germanic culture. Even today the dialect that is spoken — Alsatian — is Allemanisch, the dialect that is spoken in southern Germany.
DH: I vaguely recall transcribing lute tabulature in graduate school, but can you remind me of the difference between the various national systems?
POD: Italian and French tabulature have a six-line staff which represents the strings on the instrument and then they use numbers or letters to indicate which fret to play. German lute tabulature was invented by a blind lutenist who needed a system that would permit him to quickly and easily dictate his music to a secretary to be written down. And for that reason, to say "third string second fret, second string first fret" would be very cumbersome. So what he did was to assign every intersection of a string and fret with a different symbol, a different letter or number. So it's very logical, but it's un-user friendly, or I should say user unfriendly, because it gives you no visual information at all. With French or Italian tabulature, you can see if a line is going up or if a line is going down or if a note is on a high string or if a note is on a low string. With German tabulature you simply have to decipher from moment to moment the symbol that you're looking at.
DH: So for this program you'll mainly be playing German-notated repertory?
POD: In fact the only repertory I'm playing that was originally notated in German tabulature will be the first two groups on the first half. Of the rest of it, even in Alsace and in the rest of Germany by 1600 they were adopting either French tabulature which won out in the end, or in some pockets Italian tabulature. Once the lute started adding more bass strings than the original six-course instruments of the 16th century, the German tabulature system becomes even less logical than it started out being. At that point, they really changed over to French tabulature. Two-thirds of my program is in French tabulature.
DH: Does the notation system somehow affect the way you play the music?
POD: No. In my case, although I read German tabulature fluently, because it is not intuitive, I transcribe things into French tabulature for playing in concert. Because in those moments you look at something and it doesn't mean anything to you in that moment. If I notate it in French tabulature, nothing will go wrong. German tabulature is just so illogical you don't want to be doing that at high speed — at least I don't.
DH: Then you're doing a second program with Ellen Hargis. We recently heard her sing a wonderful concert here with Debra Nagy and Les Délices. What's on Thursday's program?
POD: It's all Italian 17th century, but it's organized in quite a different way from most of our programs. We've done over the years many, many, many concerts of Italian music, usually organized by composer. In this case, Ellen wanted to do something different, so she organized the groups according to various emotional states. There's an opening group of Heartache, then there's a group on Jealousy, there's a group about Madness and a group after intermission on Insomnia, then a set on Death and then a set on Cure. So instead of doing a group of cantatas by Luigi Rossi, followed by a group of cantatas by Barbara Strozzi, the composers are mixed among these emotional states. That meant that instead of my playing my normal group of solo theorbo pieces by Kapsberger and another solo group of pieces by Piccinini, I've found solo pieces that are in the same character as the cantatas and also fit key-wise. It's a big mixture of composers, but it all fits thematically according to the character. I get to play some absolutely crazy music for the Madness section and some enraged music for the Jealousy section, and so on.
DH: It sounds like a wonderful pair of programs, and those are just two of the eight recitals during the seminar. Have you been a frequent participant in these Lute Society summer meetings?
POD: I have every year since 1977 — it's held every two years — except for I think twice when it didn't work out.
DH: What do you take away from a week like this?
POD: I think it's a unique opportunity. It is in a way like a symposium of scientists or musicologists or instrument builders or researchers of various disciplines — where you have all the top people in the field come together and you can see what different players and instrument makers are doing, new repertoire that's being played, new approaches to playing or new ideas about stringing the instrument. It's great to catch up on developments in the field over the past two years.
DH: I expect the students take away a great deal as well.
POD: I think so, because we have so many people in America who don't live near a lute teacher, so they get along as best they can from lessons they might have had in the past, information that they've read, or asking people questions by email. But they come to the seminar where they have the opportunity to ask all these questions they've been storing up. I think the attitude of a lot of the participants is to take in as much information as they can possibly get and then they have two years to process it until the next seminar. It really is kind of information overload at these things, because first thing in the morning until the wee hours of the night it's all lute and lute music so people are constantly talking about say, how did you solve the problem of stringing a particularly difficult register of a certain kind of lute. There's a lot of comparing notes. Just as with any kind of conference, people feel they come away with fresh ideas and it always raises the standard of knowledge and playing.
DH: And I expect that it's fun, too.
POD: It's a lot of fun. We always have a "lute tasting", which is where usually Nigel North and I and sometimes Bob Barto sit down and are handed fifty or sixty lutes by various builders and we play the same couple of pieces — you want to play pieces of different types to hear different qualities of the instrument — and you get to hear the same player, which means the tone production will be consistent, but playing lots of different instruments by different builders. That's always very interesting.
DH: Speaking of instruments, which instruments are you using for these two recitals?
POD: I will have an eight-course lute by Paul Thomson for my solo program, and I'll have a chittarone by a German builder, Hendrick Hasenfuss, that I'll use for the program with Ellen.
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Published on ClevelandClassical.com June 23, 2012
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