On February 2, the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society produced its first-ever solo lute recital, featuring Hopkinson Smith. The concert took place in the intimate Benjamin Franklin Hall at the American Philosophical Society, allowing audiences to enjoy the subtle sounds of the instrument.

Hopkinson Smith
Hopkinson Smith

Smith – or Hoppy, as he calls himself – has had long career that includes decades of work as a musicologist and a musician. In the 1970s, he was a founding member of the early music group Hespèrion XX, along with Jordi Savall and his recently deceased wife, Montserrat Figueras García.

Beginning in the 1980s, Smith turned almost exclusively towards solo repertoire for the lute. Thursday evening’s concert was titled “Renaissance Rainbow: Italian and English Music for the Lute,” and featured Smith in solo repertoire.

The first half of the program featured works by Francesco da Milano, who, Smith explained to the audience, was the lute composer for several popes during the sixteenth century. One of the most memorable pieces played by da Milano was the Fantasia (33) sopra mi-fa-mi. The piece develops a simple melodic theme on the notes mi-fa-mi, or E-F-E, in complicated, polyphonic counterpoint. Smith’s extremely precise technique made the polyphonic play between the parts sound crystalline.

The Toccatas by Giovanni Kapsperger which filled out the rest of the first half of the program were impressive, indeed. Smith made no mistakes in these complex polyphonic pieces, and hardly any at all in the rest of the pieces that evening. Many lute players are skilled at improvising in a continuo section, yet cannot easily play dense pieces like the Kapsperger Toccatas. By playing these works so flawlessly and consistently, Smith displayed an immense control over his instrument and this style of music.

The most expressively played piece was the popular Lachrimae Pavane by John Dowland, a piece which was later adapted into the song Flow my tears. Smith played an encore by Dowland with great success, as well, making me wish that I had heard more of this repertoire on the program that evening.

Smith should be commended for introducing audiences to repertoire for the lute that is widely unknown today. However, his most successful performances Thursday were of the well-known pieces by Dowland. Perhaps with a series like the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, which was introducing lute concerts to its audiences for the first time, including more popular favorites by better-known composers such as Dowland would have made the concert even more exciting. It is difficult to walk away humming a Toccata by Kapsperger, for example. But some lute repertoire, like the pieces by Dowland, includes popular songs that people sang, and can more easily engage an audience unfamiliar with the repertoire.

Still, the concert Thursday was a treat, presenting Philadelphia audiences with the opportunity to hear one of the most technically proficient lutenists alive in a charming and intimate space. The Phildelphia Chamber Music Society, which presents an impressive roster of top-notch soloists and ensembles, should continue to present solo concerts of early music.

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