Lutenist Paul O’Dette   

University of Chicago Presents has been a local leader in offering Chicagoans alternative ways to experience classical music during the pandemic. Late last month they joined with the Chamber Music Society of Detroit, the Academy of Early Music (Ann Arbor), and WFMT to present a free livestream of lutenist Paul O’Dette.

This was a carefully thought-out project with a full program of varied music, high quality recording, a helpful pre-concert lecture, and alongside the streaming window, a chat page where delighted listeners commented. Many listeners noted where they were hearing this concert, and included such far-flung places as Kyrgyzstan, Tasmania, Madrid, Sao Paulo, and the Isle of Man.

O’Dette performed in his own music room, a warm and friendly environment without clutter or distractions. It was the backdrop to a masterful recital, not surprising to followers of this great performer who is sometimes described as the Dean of American Lutenists. O’Dette made reference to the coronavirus pandemic by entitling his concert “Lost is My Liberty.”

The opening set kicked off with anonymous works, the first being “Packington’s Pound,” which was infused with both energy and yearning. “I cannot keep my wife at home” had a clear melancholy accented with agitation and worry. “Bonny sweet boy” opened slowly and gradually developed a pleasing complexity. There was crisp playing and lovely rapid passages in “Bonny sweet boy.”

“Lost is my Liberty,” a work with disappointment tinged with sadness at its core, had a bell-like quality in the melody. The music was carefree and the pace was lively for “Grimstock,” after which O’Dette thanked the audience for what he described as virtual applause.

Dowland, an Elizabethan era composer who never worked for Queen Elizabeth, is O’Dette’s favorite composer. His second set was all Dowland, opening with one of his fancies (fantasy), Poulton Number 5 (generally abbreviated P5). It was stuffed with detail, including elaborate and difficult runs and delicate phrasing. A pavin had simple, plaintive sound. The King of Denmark’s Galliard was regal and filigreed with spunky moments that were simultaneously gracious. Another fancy (P6) was bursting with energy and power.

The next set was made up of works from “The Rowallan Lute Book,” a collection of lute arrangements of popular compiled by Sir William Mure of Rowallan Castle published in 1620. In his introduction O’Dette was pleased to mention that this castle is 20 miles south of where his daughter is currently living in Glasgow.

“I never knew I loved thee” was brief and full of emotion. There was a good pulse for the perky “Corne Yards.” “The Gypsies Lilt” had frequent moments of bizarre dissonances, presumably to set the gypsies apart from the rest of society. There was a wonderful driving pace and lots of tension in the first of three unnamed pieces that O’Dette simply called Scots Tunes. The second Scots Tune was simple and O’Dette’s deliberateness never slogged, but added heft to the music. The final Scots Tune was calm and introspective with a beautiful main melody enhanced by O’Dette’s gentle ornamentation.

A set of three works by Anthony Holborne followed. There were gorgeous counterpoint and shining high notes for the Fantasia. “Il Nodo di Gordio,” a set of complex variations, had complicated music rendered with great clarity. O’Dette compared the Gordian Knot mentioned in the title as something comparable to the coronavirus. “As it fell on a holy day” was exciting, fast-paced, and ended too soon.

The final set returned to the music of Dowland. The Earl of Essex, his Galliard painted a picture of a man who was cocky yet elegant, noble yet winningly optimistic. In “Lachrimae,” O’Dette made sure you felt the tears. The Frog Galliard had more gorgeous sound than I’ve ever heard from a frog, with enchanting ornaments. The Fantasie (P1a) was grand as well as full of life and joy.

The encore was by contemporary composer Allan Alexander. Francesco’s Pavanne was pretty, slow, and graceful. It was comforting music and a fine choice to end the concert.

This magnificent concert is archived on YouTube. You can find the link at the University of Chicago Presents website,

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