Listening to the logic of an age

Master lutist Hopkinson Smith shies away from such terms as ‘authenticity’ and ‘reconstruction’ – he prefers to pursue sincerity in his playing.

April 7, 2010 05:35
2 minute read.
Lutist Hopkinson Smith.

hopkinson smith 311. (photo credit: Dan Merte)


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‘The lute is by far the most beautiful instrument I know of,” says Switzerland-based American lutenist Hopkinson Smith on the eve of his Israeli debut. “I’ve chosen it because of its fabulous sound that touches your heart; it has an enormous repertoire of the highest musical value.”

Smith, who has been called “the most moving of present day lutenists” and “the finest lute player in the world today,” will give only one recital at St. Andrew’s Church in Jerusalem, tonight at 8:30 p.m., and will present a master class the next day. He also appears in the West Bank cities of Jenin and Ramallah. His visit has become possible due to the generous support of the Pro Helvetia cultural foundation.

After studying musicology at Harvard, Smith came to Europe in 1973 to continue his studies. In the mid ’70s he was involved, together with Jordi Saval, in the founding of the renowned Hesperion XX ensemble. Since the mid ’80s, he has focused on solo music for early plucked instruments, and today, with over 20 solo recordings to his credit, he divides his time between concerts and master classes throughout the world, and teaching at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Basel, where he currently lives.

In Jerusalem, Smith will perform 16th century music for the Renaissance lute from France, Spain and Italy. The compositions, smith tells The Jerusalem Post, are “free-form pieces, more structured and more improvisatory music. Lute is not one sound, but a million sounds with many different colors.” In its heyday, he adds, the lute was “king of the instruments not because it was played very loud, but because of its power to speak and touch the listener.”

THE HISTORICALLY informed performance of early music has long ago become a regular staple on our musical menu. But how reliable are reconstructions of music that nobody has ever heard? And how authentic can such a performance be?

“I don’t like the word ‘reconstruction,’” says Smith. “We are not reconstructing, but rather trying to enter the aesthetic world and the logic of this era, of these instruments and of this music in order to find their true richness and beauty.” With his soft voice he explains that “in the old times there were many ways of playing instruments – not only one old ‘authentic’ way.”

In any case, he notes, authenticity isn’t necessarily a quality that should be demanded of music. “[‘Authenticity’ is a] word I never use,” he says, “because ‘authentic’ is what a dog barks. Music making doesn’t have to be authentic – it has to be sincere, interesting, historically informed.”

Smith adds that at his Jerusalem master class he will “try to teach the people to find a natural way of playing their instruments.” “Natural” being not what one’s fingers and body want to play but rather “a way of playing that is as if you were singing or speaking yourself.”

Hopkinson Smith performs at St. Andrews Church, Rehov Remez 1, tonight at 8:30 p.m. His master class takes place at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance on the following day. For reservations call (054) 449-8792.

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