San Diego Early Music Society Scores Again
SDEMS brings a new golden age of rare musical artistry to Cuyamaca College, featuring International stars.
For decades the San Diego Early Music Society (SDEMS) has presented international exponents of Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music at modest cost in San Diego County. Their extraordinary seasons not only indicate the high quality and diversity of local musical offerings, they, along with counterparts elsewhere in the U. S. and Europe, constitute a new Golden Age of Early Music for audiences.
SDEMS is at home in St. James-by-the-Sea, La Jolla, and in East County. The current season concluded on May 5 in Cuyamaca College's Samuel M. Ciccati Theatre with a stunning performance by Hopkinson Smith, who is widely considered to be the best lutenist in the world today, playing "Elizabethan Lute Music from the Golden Age" (Elizabeth I).
The college's intimate, acoustically excellent theatre, with its convenient parking lot, was a perfect setting for this riveting solo performance. Reportedly, the college provides its venue gratis to SDEMS, a gesture that reveals the institution's high regard (and populist intention) for the work of the organization, and the beauty and uniqueness of early music.
Smith, now 73, is an appealing figure. Tall, thin, with silvery hair, courtly manner, husky voice--his charming comments between pieces further drew people in--were complemented by his gorgeous, eight-course lute (15 strings) built by New Hampshire craftsman, Joël van Lennep.
But it is Smith's mastery of early lute music, his meticulous technique, elegant phrasing, emotional involvement and engaging writing (he wrote the program notes) that inspire this: "As we grow into a repertoire and ingest its language and freedoms, a process of entering the creativity of an époque gradually takes place." True for the artist--and certainly true for the audience.
In youth Smith played the banjo, electric guitar and mandolin, essentially mastering whatever was needed in the high school band. During the fervent 1960s he was inspired by the New Lost City Ramblers, folk and Appalachian music, and more, all sending him to the classical guitar and, eventually, the lute. In other words, this thoroughly contemporary artist walked straight out of the 20th century into the 14th.
There, he found a certain magic in the lute as he noted in a profile in Harvard Magazine: "It was the sound and shape of the instrument, in addition to the incredible quality and quantity of the different repertoires from different regions and different eras."
Nearly five decades on, with many accolades and award-winning CDs to his credit ("mesmerizing" is a frequent critical adjective), Smith is a globe-trotting artist, who teaches at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, Basel, Switzerland, a center for early music studies.
With its beautiful period instruments, some of them extravagantly eccentric, virtuoso performers and collaborations with singers and dancers, early music has a distinctly modern appeal. SDEMS presents an average of seven concerts annually.
by Helen Ofield (Lemon Grove)