Elizabeth Kenny, SJE Arts at the church of S. John the Evangelist, Thu June 27th 2019
When I first lived in London, I attended a Wigmore Hall concert by Anthony Rooley. In the cheap seats at the back, the lute was scarcely audible even in the reverent silence. Ever since, I’ve had concerns about how well such a delicate instrument will work in a modern concert environment.
But the theorbo is a different beast, of greater size and volume, developed partly to serve continuo needs for larger musical forces and staged performances, and I need not have worried about this concert. The sound filled the warm acoustic of SJE very well, in this episode of their outstanding Next Generation concert series.
Nor was the repertoire confined to gentler ancient music - alongside exquisitely realised baroque suites by Kapsberger and de Visee, we had 21st century pieces by James MacMillan and Benjamin Oliver - perhaps too fearsome for me! - and a hugely engaging 'Berceuse and Variations' from Nico Muhly. Throughout, Kenny played with the sensitivity and accuracy for which she has developed renown, which has won her Grammy awards and many other tributes. The greater volume and presence of the theorbo compared with a lute, does not preclude the instrument being intimate and engaging, and Kenny further connected with the audience during the necessary trials of re-tuning between pieces - the modern composers in particular make full use of the flexibility of the theorbo.
We had a brief encore of the 17th century song 'Lillibullero', reshaped for theorbo by the performer herself - as she explained, an accelerated version of 'Rock-a-bye Baby!' - and it was much appreciated that she stayed around to chat to concertgoers after the event, to explain the instrument and repertoire further. A very pleasing evening altogether.
It was tremendously helpful also to be provided with a very well-produced programme which described and explained the works for this concert, and upcoming events in the Next Generation series.