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A Bucolic Renaissance Afternoon

Los Angeles
Pratt House, Sierra Madre
03/02/2008 -  
P. Attaignant (publisher): Prélude, Le jaulne et blanc sont les couleurs d’une dame que j’ayme fort, La Magdalena: Basse danse, Recoupe, Tourdion
Francesco da Milano: Saltarello
Borrono: Fantasia de mon Triste, Saltarello de mon Triste (reconstruction)
A. de Rippe: Fantaisie 18, Gaillarde
Francesco da Milano: ‘la piu bella & divina ache abia fatto’
Borrono: Il Pescatore cha va cantando
Francesco da Milano: Fantasia sopra mi-fa-mi (33), Pavana ‘Mi fato e miserabil sorte’ (reconstruction), Fantasia 34 ‘La Compagna’
P. Attaignant (publisher): Tant que vivray, Haulberroys, Sauterelle

Hopkinson Smith (lute)

Period music presentation often attempts to theatrically recreate the experience of the original audience with a kind of all encompassing “archeology”- archeology in the complex sense that Michel Foucault used the term. The endeavor is to open up the modern listener’s imagination to enable him to envision another time in history, in all of its richness and variety, through the power of music and the mind’s ear and eye. When successful, such a musical event can be mind altering. The recent international tour of the King’s Singers and the Turkish ensemble Sarband, complete with whirling dervishes, was a striking example of this kind of presentation. Jordi Savall and Hesperion XXI’s more recent “Lost Paradises: 1400-1506” is another. Historian and artistic advisor Joseph Horowitz’ visual accompaniment to Dvorak’s New World Symphony attempts the same sort of “archeological” recreation, endeavoring to put a modern audience in the mindset of the original 19th century audience, through scholarship and the imagination.

Through astonishing erudition and musicality, the Renaissance lute player Hopkinson Smith manages to create a persuasive period universe all by himself.
Although the setting provided by the Da Camera Society’s Chamber Music in Historic Sites certainly helped. The Pratt House, an Italianate Renaissance style country villa outside of Los Angeles was an ideal venue. Designed in 1924 by Pasadena architect Sylvanus Marston, one of the best-known architects of the region in his time, the estate and extensive gardens created the perfect mood. The owner’s extensive collection of intricate South-Asian paintings and sculptures fit beautifully with both the house and the complexity of the music. Smith played an equally beautiful small six course lute, made in New Hampshire by Joel van Lennep in 1977.

Hopkinson Smith has often collaborated in the past with Jordi Savall; both of them teach at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis. Smith’s intense and profound knowledge of the music he plays, and its universe, has a striking effect on his technique and program. His interpretation of each nuance is clearly based on decades of erudition and analysis.

The lute was the predominant instrument of the Renaissance, and more of this music is extant than any other from the period. The program alternated suites of French and Italian compositions. Within each set, serious and difficult contrapuntal pieces alternate with more “easy listening” dances. The French prelude, ballads and dances from the publisher Pierre Attaignant opened the recital with a remarkable variety of tone, rhythm and pace. Smith explained that the great Francesco da Milano, who composed for three different popes, destroyed all of the transcriptions of his improvised, light-hearted dances. So to complete the Italian portion of the program, Smith “reconstructed” the improvised interludes based on music by Borrono, a contemporary of Francesco.

The Frenchman Albert de Rippe was court composer to King Francis the 1st, and his compositions were most surprising. While they seemed to lack any architectural form, their lively, wandering quality was enchanting. The agility and alacrity of Smith’s fingers was on display in these pieces.

Francesco’s Fantasia 55 was another roving composition that fit its description well, a voyage from a storm at sea to the stillness of a summer day far inland. The cumulative sense of these pieces was an elaborate musical filigree, amazingly spun out of the vibration of the air, a gossamer thread of imagination powerfully evoking the universe of the renaissance. The more serious contrapuntal pieces fit marvelously with the lighter reconstructions.

The final suite of French dances was absolutely enthralling, led by a haunting melody in a minor key. As an encore, Smith played something by John Dowland called “Nothing,” or more specifically, “Mrs. White’s Nothing.” Moving across the channel to England, the encore was equally rich but completely distinct in tone.

Thomas Aujero Small



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