Lutist Ronn MacFarlane brings the Renaissance to modern day
Ronn McFarlane is taking the audience on a musical journey back in time to the Renaissance period.
McFarlane will perform on the lute at the Hamilton Recital at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 14, at Washington County Museum of Fine Arts.
At the age of 13, McFarlane became passionately interested in music when he heard a group of classmates who had formed a rock band playing “Wipeout” by the Surfaris. He played electric guitar in rock bands and went on to study classical guitar in conservatories.
Of the classical guitar music he studied, his favorites were the Renaissance and Baroque pieces that had initially been lute music, later arranged for the guitar.
“I gravitated toward the lute and wanted to hear what this music might have sounded like on the instrument for which it was originally composed,” he said in an email interview. “The Renaissance pieces I play have a musical connection with the folk and rock music I played as a teen. They often use the same scales or modes, tend to have a lot of rhythmic propulsion, and have the opportunity for improvisation.”
The lute was first played in Europe about 800 to 1,000 years ago. The earliest lutes had only a few strings and were plucked with a quill.
Gradually, over the years the lute evolved into an instrument with many strings and was plucked delicately with the bare fingertips. This style of playing created a colorful and varied tone quality that has the blended elements of the sounds of the guitar, harp, banjo and mandolin.
“The lute has its own individual character of sound and a subtlety that can’t be completely described in words,” he said. “You need to experience the sound in person.”
McFarlane took over the lute position in the Baltimore Consort when his first lute teacher, Roger Harmon, moved to Europe. Since then, he established the group, Ayreheart, to bring the lute into the 21st century and redefine what it can do.
“Ayreheart was created to perform new original music combining the lute with modern instruments such as electric bass and percussion. We love to play Renaissance music and traditional folk music as well,” McFarlane said. “‘Ayre’ is an old English word, which means a song, especially a song accompanied by the lute. ‘Heart’ refers to the center or core of the song, which is the spirit or vital energy of the music.”
McFarlane was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Classical Crossover Album of 2009.
When asked what that experience was like, he said, “I felt very happy and gratified to have my original music for the lute recognized by a Grammy nomination. I was also very surprised!”
Some of the pieces that McFarlane will perform at the recital will be Bach, Weiss and the Scottish and Irish tunes on his 24-string lute, and Renaissance and original music on his 19-string lute. The new music will lean toward Celtic, bluegrass, and progressive folk styles, which has surprised newcomers at how many different colors and tones the lute can produce to express music.
“A Renaissance writer described how the lute can express ‘hardness and softness, harshness and sweetness, and thus the cries, laments, complaints, weeping, and finally tranquility and tumult, with such grace and wonder,’” McFarlane said. “I hope the audience will feel uplifted and energized by the music, just as listeners responded many centuries ago.”