Chords of beauty Lutenist Ronn McFarlane


- Paul Weideman I The New Mexican

THE veteran lutenist Ronn McFarlane maintains an active concert schedule — he plays in Santa Fe and Corrales on Friday, Sept. 13, and Saturday, Sept. 14, respective­ly — and he’s also a valuable reference for others who play the pearshaped stringed instrument. Instructio­nal pages on his website offer advice under titles that include Tone Control, Mind Control, Painting the Music, No Plodding, and Quick Release, which, by his descriptio­ns, sounds very important.

“It is,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s basically the art of getting out of your own way, of not holding in tension when you play. That relates to the more delicate plucking, because if you’re holding in tension, you’ll end up clawing at the strings instead of plucking them more sensitivel­y, which is what the lute responds to.”

His technique on the instrument produces quite a soft sound. He uses Nylgut strings. “That is a composite of unnatural materials that try to emulate the sound and the feel of gut strings,” he said.

“The lute is very light and responds to a more delicate touch. Back in the Renaissanc­e, the lute was thought to be a powerful instrument because it could move a person’s feelings, but not in the sense of making a loud sound. An instrument that made a loud sound was thought to be unrefined and coarse. They thought that a musical instrument should be about the volume of normal conversati­on, and louder instrument­s like trumpets and percussion instrument­s and bagpipes were not even allowed indoors.”

In the Renaissanc­e era, the lute was the most popular instrument in the Western world. Among its champions through the ages were composers John Dowland, Francesco da Milano, Silvius Leopold Weiss, Johann Sebastian Bach, and guitarist Julian Bream.

McFarlane, a native of West Virginia, played the guitar early in his life, including in rock and blues groups. He began concentrat­ing on the lute in 1978, studying at Shenandoah Conservato­ry, in Winchester, Virginia. He is a founding member of the Baltimore Consort and, in 1996, he received an honorary doctorate from Shenandoah. His most recent album, The Celtic Lute (2018), features his arrangemen­ts of Irish and Scottish tunes.

How do lutenists emulate players from a time before sound recordings? Historical lutenists “do give us a good idea of what was valued in a performanc­e back then and what they thought about the good players. So we can get an idea of what the style was like and what was valued, and use that as our model,” he said.

McFarlane also writes new tunes. Many of his original compositio­ns, such as “Denali” and “Cathedral Cave,” are inspired by nature. “I’m often composing and playing new material,” he said. “At solo concerts, most of the time I’m playing some original music. It makes the lute not just an historical music, not just a museum piece. It connects to modern life.”

The lute, unlike many stringed instrument­s, is available with a variety of stringing arrangemen­ts. McFarlane said he will bring two to New Mexico. One is a Renaissanc­e lute that has 19 strings, with a single treble string and all the rest in either unison or octave pairs. He uses the instrument to play Renaissanc­e dances, his original music, and his Allman Brothers cover of “Little Martha.”

The other lute, a Baroque model, has two single treble strings and 22 strings in unison or octave pairs. He employs this one to play music by Bach, Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738), and traditiona­l Celtic tunes from the 18th century.

With all of those strings, it sounds like the instrument could be a nightmare to tune, especially onstage. “That is true,” he said. “There are complaints from centuries ago about how hard they were to tune and how often strings would break. Fortunatel­y, these modern composite strings stay in tune and don’t break very often.

“I will try to arrive at a venue and let the lute acclimate to the temperatur­e and humidity of the room, and if it has been able to stabilize, I often don’t have to tune during until intermissi­on.”

For his Santa Fe performanc­e at Gig Performanc­e Space, McFarlane said he intends to play Renaissanc­e works, original tunes, “Little Martha,” and 18thcentur­y songs from Ireland and Scotland — such as “The Kid on the Mountain,” “Banish Misfortune,” and “Fanny Power” from The Celtic Lute.

The Corrales concert will be held in a historic church. “That will be a little more classical,” he said. “I’ll be playing a Bach suite, as well as a good bit of John Dowland and historical pieces.”

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