A Local Jazz Pro Electrifies an Obscure, 14-String Baroque Instrument

You maybe haven’t heard of the theorbo, but you definitely haven’t heard it plugged in.

The similarities between baroque music and jazz are obvious enough: the centrality of improvisation, of course; the freedom given to performers who extrapolate from lead sheets or figured bass lines rather than scores notated in full detail; the use of repeating chordal patterns, like the 12-bar blues or the baroque chaconne; the fondness for vocal virtuosity; the division of labor so natural to both, bass + keyboard + melody instrument.

So it wasn’t too big a stretch for composer Aaron Grad, who studied jazz at New York University and immersed himself in that city’s downtown free-improv scene before moving here in 2009, to get drawn to the theorbo. A large member of the lute family popular as an accompanying instrument in 17th/18th-century vocal music, the theorbo faded from use by 1800. But Grad was so enthralled by the obscure instrument that he built his own, combining his two interests: a solid-body theorbo rethought to accommodate amplification and effects pedals. An electric theorbo.

Already hugely versatile—its 14 strings encompass bass and treble registers, its tone qualities recall both harp and guitar—plugging in a theorbo explodes its timbral possibilities while preserving the mellowness of its baroque ancestor. After introducing his hybrid creation in his song cycle Old-Fashioned Love Songs, in its traditional role of accompanying a voice, Grad knew it should take center stage. When on November 11 John Lenti plays Grad’s Strange Seasons with the Seattle Baroque Orchestra, it’ll mark not only the first-ever concerto for an old/new instrument, but a rare concert event: a world premiere by an early-music group.

Grad’s first compositional step was to consider the theorbo’s role—how to write solo music for an instrument that usually provided background for others. “It’s so good at being a texture,” Grad says, “a layer within a multilayer landscape.” So although its part is deliberately virtuosic, showing off its possibilities, the theorbo in Strange Seasons blends with the string orchestra as often as it stands out. Respecting the strengths of the SBO’s period strings—with less richness and carrying power than modern instruments, but capable of a subtler silkiness and a more incisive bite—Grad crafted a work that should appeal to audiences of multiple genres. “I have this sort of jazz streak in me,” he says, “and a tunefulness that sort of cuts against the grain” of the stereotype of forbidding contemporary music.

Furthermore, in keeping with his work as a music lecturer, program-note writer, and all-around classical-music evangelist, Grad took pains to provide a way in for the wary—“a reason to walk through the door,” as he puts it. Working on the concerto between the fall of 2015 and the following summer, one complete cycle of Seattle seasons, he got the idea of representing the peculiarities of our climate in the work’s four movements: From autumn to summer, they’re subtitled “Pineapple Express,” “Gray, Gray, Gray, Emerald Blues,” “Sun Breaks,” and “Paradise.” And as Vivaldi did 300 years ago in his “Four Seasons” tetralogy of violin concertos, Grad wrote a descriptive sonnet to set up each movement, which will be read at the premiere performance by “the voice of Seattle weather” himself, KING-5’s recently retired Jeff Renner. Conductor Alexander Weimann will surround Grad’s premiere with other nature-inspired music: dance works from the French baroque by Rebel and Lully. Seattle Baroque Orchestra, Benaroya Recital Hall, Third Ave. and Union St., earlymusicseattle.org. $20–$40. 7:30 p.m. Sat., Nov. 11.

gborchert@seattleweekly.com

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