Daniel Swenberg shows off lute to curious on-lookers
“The Ancient Airs for Lute” Foyer Concert on July 20 at Sunset Center was sold-out, which gives one a dim hope for returning to a three-week Festival again. Daniel Swenberg started off the program and sat at the base of the foyer stairs, just in front of Sunset Center’s distinctive peaked arches, framing his person and instrument. After the first and second pieces, he addressed the audience and pointed out that this particular program, in its entirety, would not have been heard all at one time, nor would it have been done on only one instrument; performers would have used, perhaps, four different instruments in the lute family. However, due to flight and cost restrictions, Mr. Swenberg only brought to the Festival his theorbo (for which he bought a seat on the plane), and his ten-string lute.
He gave us a tour of the lute and mentioned the tied-gut frets, which I observed up close after the concert. He is able to move them around easily to change the tuning, which does not have to be equal-temperament. He added, that he has spent a lot of time in his career tuning…and a lot of time playing out of tune! Continuing in wry fashion, “People always ask why the end of the lute is bent back. It’s so that it will fit in the case!” He was kidding, he said, and stated that the official answer is that nobody knows. However, after the performance was over, and a crowd of curious onlookiers surrounded Swenberg and his lute — firing off question after question about the instrument– he stated that his conjecture is that the sharp bent-back design was possibly two-fold: to hold the strings firmly in place, and to balance out the depth of the rest of the instrument.
At one point it was announced, “We have come to the visual-aid portion of the concert.” It was explained that often in this period, time signatures were irregular, and much of the music was unbarred, and accordingly a specimen of tablature for lute was passed around to members of the audience.
When Scott Mello appeared for his first song, Divine Amaryllis, Antoine Boësset (1586- 1643), he sang from a tablet, a tablet-tablature, if you will. Also a curious sight at the VBA Masterclasses, Gwendolyn Toth plays from a tablet placed directly on the harpsichord; this seems to be the way things are going in the modern music world, truly blending the old and the new.
Described as a tenor’s tenor, Mr. Mello’s voice was well-paired with the mellowness of the lute. The five vocal pieces on the program were in French, and his diction was excellent. There were three songs by Jean Baptiste Besard (1567-1617) C’est Malheur de vous aimer and La voila la nacelle d’amour. The third, Ma belle si ton ame, also known as La Monica, was a very popular piece at the time, and was a setting of a three-verse carpe diem poem. The last verse admonished, So let us love at our ease, Let us kiss passionately/For we can kiss no more when we are dead./Let us not see how, already youth/With its purloined pleasures, flees from us in haste. It reminds one of Andrew Marvell’s (1621-1678) To His Coy Mistress.
Altogether, there were fourteen lute pieces on the program, by nine composers including Simone Molinaro (1565-1615), Vicenzo Galillei (1525-1591), Sartino Garsi da Parma (1542-1604), Robert Ballard (1575-1650), Nicolas Vallet (1583-1642), and last, but not least, the ever-prolific, Anonymous.
The final piece of the program, En fin la Beauté que j’adore, by Étienne Mouliné (1602-1660), was a great windup to end the concert — exhibiting more expression and emotion. With vocal shakes and trills, it ended with plaintive faces on both singer and lutenist, alike.
At the end, after the final applause, Paul Goodwin stood up, and announced that it was Daniel Swenberg’s birthday that day, “I want to wish him a very happy birthday on behalf of the Carmel Bach Festival!” And everyone applauded again!