Last night in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, lutenist Paul O’Dette made his San Francisco Performances debut, giving the final concert in the 2017–2018 Guitar Series, presented jointly with the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts. The title of his program was Robin is to the Greenwood Gone; but a more informative title could be found in the program notes that he prepared. All of the selections came from the period between 1580 and 1620, which could be called the “Golden Age of English Lute Music.”
The second half of the program was devoted entirely to John Dowland, definitely the most celebrated lutenist of his day, recognized not only for his performance technique but also for his prodigious capacity for invention. As O’Dette demonstrated, Dowland could take the simplest of passages and ornament them into highly elaborate structures that could be as emotionally compelling as they were innovative. During the first half O’Dette played selections by John Johnson, recognized as the first great English lutenist, as well as three relatively short pieces by Daniel Bacheler, who was also highly successful in his day, even if his documented legacy is somewhat modest. The first half also included several pieces that were either anonymous (as in the composition for which the program was named) or unattributed, as was the case for the Scottish tunes taken from a book of lute music compiled by Sir William Mure of Rowallan.
O’Dette presented each set of pieces with a brief verbal introduction. He is as much a reputable research scholar as he is a performer. Fortunately, his introductory material was directed at a curious audience, rather than a convention of musicologists. As a result, he consistently found the right way to guide the listening experience through awareness of distinctive features without wasting any time on promoting his own authority. This was particularly evident in his preparing listeners for the dissonances in “The Gypsies Lilt,” one of the selections from the Rowallan collection.
It was also interesting to speculate on the extent to which the music that O’Dette played resided solely on the notation (which could have been either tablature or the contemporary five-line staff) and how much involved improvisation. The first four anonymous selections on the program began as melodic settings of words (hence the titles like “Robin is to the Greenwood Gone”). O’Dette’s performance of these selections was basically one of theme-and-variations; but, as is the case in jazz practice, those variations could just as easily have been spontaneous as notated.
O’Dette concluded his program by departing from England. He played a passacaglia by an Italian composer from the same period, Alessandro Piccinini. The attentive listener would probably have recognized several tropes that emerged as the variations on the basic theme unfolded. Some of those tropes would later show up in Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 582 C minor passacaglia. This should not have been much of a surprise. Bach had his sources for learning about the music of his predecessors, even those working in Italy; and, for all we know, Piccinini was simply using tropes familiar to his own contemporaries, which Bach subsequently adopted for his own purposes.