Sunday, February 3, 2013


St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
February 1

Bringing a Renaissance instrument into the 21st century.

In a decade of music writing, this critic never had occasion to use the terms “Baroque” and “rock ’n’ roll” in the same sentence. But over the past week, in a stroke of Jungian synchronicity, there have been two: A performance by Finnish opera singer Topi Lehtipuu with the Collegium 1704 Baroque orchestra in Prague, and a guest appearance by lute player Ronn McFarlane with Apollo’s Fire in Cleveland.

Lehtipuu, 41, is an opera star and captivating tenor who held the audience breathless singing Monteverdi and Vivaldi arias – no small accomplishment in Prague, a city that sees world-class singers on a regular basis. Trained at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, he has developed a repertoire that stretches from Bach to Stravinsky and a career that includes a five-year (1993-98) stint as the singer and violinist for Höyry-kone, a Finnish prog-rock group. With influences ranging from Gregorian chants to King Crimson, the band produced a distinctive sound fronted by Lehtipuu’s clear, crystalline vocals.

McFarlane, 59, was born in West Virginia. He started his music career playing blues and rock on electric guitar before turning to classical studies and, in 1978, devoting himself full-time to the practice and study of the lute. He joined the Baltimore Consort in 1979, and spent 11 years (1984-1995) teaching at the Peabody Institute. With more than two dozen recordings, including Indigo Road, a 2009 Grammy nominee for Best Classical Crossover Album, McFarlane has arguably done more than anyone in the country to bring his Renaissance instrument back into the musical mainstream.

McFarlane still uses a lot of contemporary guitar-playing technique, from the way he fingers the strings to the drop of his hand from the fretboard. His style and approach are also strikingly modern, especially his work with other players in the ensemble, which is like watching the lead guitarist in a smart rock or jazz band. McFarlane clearly relishes the technical challenges of his 16-string instrument – the more notes, and the more complicated they are, the happier he seems. But it’s the sound that caught and held his attention, he says in an essay on his website – the wide palette of tonal colors, and the possibilities the lute offers for fusing popular and classical music.

Friday night’s “Intimate Vivaldi” program opened with a razor-sharp concerto (RV 114) by a five-piece Apollo’s Fire ensemble, with McFarlane sitting in on continuo. The next piece, a trio (RV 85), featured some tight and impressive work by McFarlane and diminutive violinist Johanna Novom. A sonata by Giovanni Zamboni (No. 9 in C minor) gave McFarlane a chance to play solo, and in his hands the music took on a warm, almost Spanish flavor. The concluding piece of the first half was perhaps the most interesting of the evening – Sonata concertata X, libro II by Dario Castello, a daring 17th-century composer whose work still sounds radical today, with its alternating leads, complementary chords and varying tempos. The quintet did a fine job with it, playing with characteristic energy and verve.

Highlights of the second half included a bracing violin duet by Novom and Olivier Brault in a capricio by Biagio Marini; a brief and finely executed slice of Vivaldi’s “Winter” concerto from The Four Seasons by Brault; and a lively finale, Vivaldi’s Concerto in D major (RV 93), which featured precision string work by Novom, Brault and violist Kristen Linfante.

The performance was the first in a new series of “Fireside Concerts” that Apollo’s Fire is staging in a more intimate, casual atmosphere. In practice, this means that between songs the musicians chat up the audience, which is then invited to join them at a reception afterward. It’s a heartwarming innovation, particularly on a cold winter’s night. But some of the players have more to say than others. McFarlane can talk forever about his lute, but when cellist René Schiffer’s turn came, he stood up, confessed “I have nothing to say,” and sat down. This did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the chattering crowd that filled the reception hall.

Of more interest to this critic was the resonance between the setting and music: the sprawling faux-Gothic architecture of St. Paul’s, and the New World style of Baroque. Particularly after hearing it in Prague, the differences between the American and European approaches were striking. The Old World sound is elegant and refined, spirited but stately, much closer to its origins in churches and royal courts. The New World sound is bright and polished, distinctly more uptempo and bursting with the optimism that characterizes American music.

But both styles, it seems, can accommodate reformed rock ’n’ rollers.

For more on Ronn McFarlane:

For more on Apollo’s Fire:

For more on Topi Lehtipuu:

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