Early Music Seattle and the Electric Theorbo: Aaron Grad’s Strange Seasons

by Micaela Pearson

Music and atmospheric phenomena intertwine in Aaron Grad’s new concerto for electric theorbo, Strange Seasons, which receives its world premiere this Saturday in a performance by theorbist John Lenti with Early Music Seattle.

Inspired in part by Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, the concerto is a four-movement celebration of weird Seattle weather featuring melodic musings about meteorology and accompanying sonnets for each season (narrated this weekend by former KING 5 meteorologist Jeff Renner).

Grad not only composed the music and the poetry, but also conceptualized and built the electric theorbo that will take center stage at Saturday’s concert. Much like the double-necked nature of the electric theorbo, new music and early music harmonize on the program with Grad’s composition celebrating the similarities shared between new and old, jazz and baroque.

I’m lucky to begin my research for Strange Seasons during a snowy spell in late autumn, living something like the damp, cold Pineapple Express as heralded by movement one of his composition. Already, we have had tastes of the Gray, Gray, Gray Emerald Blues looming on the horizon in the endless blanket of clouds.  And on this particularly clear and cold morning, I fondly recall the once warm, summery Paradise with Rainier illuminated in gold, and the scattered, hopeful Sun Breaks of springtime feel an eternity away.

Grad is a friend of Second Inversion and a champion of new music in the community.  Second Inversion co-founder Maggie Stapleton interviewed Grad in 2014 about his electric theorbo and the composition he wrote to debut it, Old-Fashioned Love Songs, which is an epic, evening-long love letter to the composer’s wife, showcasing the electric theorbo’s ancestral role as the ultimate accompaniment.  Grad’s electrified innovation gives a common thread of bass and strumming capabilities, mellow tone, and nuanced attitude to an evening of dreamy, pining lyrics that span the centuries.  

In this new composition, which is again dedicated to his wifebut now with the addition of their newborn childGrad gives the electric theorbo its day in the sun. Brought forward from the ranks of background music, Strange Seasons puts the range of the electric theorbo front and center, expressing the melancholic and vibrant variety of Pacific Northwest weather patterns.

In contrast to how Old-Fashioned Love Songs pays tribute to the historic use of the instrument, Grad uses Strange Seasons “to defy the theorbo’s traditional role, taking full advantage of the electromagnetic pickups routed through tone-altering effects pedals and punchy amplification.”

The diversity of color and texture available on the electric theorbo lends itself well to the constant shifting of Seattle weather, allowing the instrument to explore a wide breadth of sound. The winter movement, for instance, gives a taste of jazzy blues swirling with baroque ornamentation.

To bring the Seattle seasons to life, Grad enlisted the help of a friend. He explains in his program notes: “It struck me that I should write a concerto—the ultimate showcase for star power—and I realized that I could make the spotlight even brighter by handing off my instrument to a world-class virtuoso: Seattle’s own John Lenti, my friend and theorbo idol.”

In fact, Grad first met Lenti when he was working to on designing his new instrument—up until then, he had never actually played a real theorbo. Lenti, a theorbist specializing in Renaissance and Baroque music, was able to give him some guidance.

“Consulting with him really helped me clarify my design,” Grad said. “Even though we come from different musical backgrounds, I feel a lot of kinship in how much we both value heartfelt expression and total commitment to the music at hand.”

Lenti is also the first musician other than Grad to perform with the electric theorbo, and given Lenti’s virtuosity on the instrument, the sky is the limit for this concerto.

“John makes certain techniques look and sound easy that I could never manage in my wildest dreams, and I wasn’t shy about showcasing his virtuosity,” Grad said.  “Any hesitancy I had about handing over my ‘baby’ vanished once I heard what he could do with the piece and the instrument. Besides, I have a real baby now who is only three weeks old, so it worked out very well that the electric theorbo is in John’s hands now and little Felix is in mine!”


Seattle Baroque Orchestra and Early Music Seattle perform Forces of Nature on Saturday, Nov. 11 at 7:30pm at Benaroya’s Nordstrom Recital Hall. The concert includes the premiere of Strange Seasons by Aaron Grad in addition to other weather-inspired works by baroque favorites Jean-Féry Rebel and Jean-Baptiste Lully.  For tickets and information, click here.

ALBUM REVIEW: The Passionate Pilgrim by Oracle Hysterical and New Vintage Baroque

by Maggie Molloy

The name “W. Shakespeare” reads in bold print on the title page of The Passionate Pilgrim, a poem cycle published right as Shakespeare was beginning to achieve widespread fame in 1599. But there’s a pretty good reason why most people haven’t heard of the anthology: Shakespeare didn’t actually write it.

Or at least, he didn’t write much of it. The 20-poem anthology was compiled and published by a scheming editor named William Jaggard, who got hold of two of Shakespeare’s poems and combined them with 18 other poems by various hands—passing them off as Shakespeare’s to sell more copies.

Suffice it to say, the jig didn’t last long: several of the poems were attributed to other poets during his lifetime, and the anthology was quickly revealed as a desperate marketing ploy.

But now, over four centuries later, that orphaned “Shakespearean” poem cycle finds a new home in a collaborative chamber pop album of the same name by Oracle Hysterical and New Vintage Baroque.

Let’s meet the characters, shall we?

Oracle Hysterical is comprised of four extraordinarily well-read composer-performers: Majel Connery (vocals), Elliot Cole (guitars, vocals, harmonium), and twin brothers Doug Balliett (double bass, viola da gamba) and Brad Balliett (bassoon). “Half band, half book club,” the ensemble combines classical and art-rock musical idioms with exceptional literary breadth, recreating great works of literature through the medium of song.

For this particular project, Oracle Hysterical joins forces with New Vintage Baroque, an adventurous, Julliard-trained period ensemble dedicated to the creation of 21st century repertoire for historical instruments.

Photo by Katrin Albert.

The album unfolds as a song cycle that toes the line between indie rock and Baroque chamber pop, hitting all the major Shakespearean themes of youth, beauty, love, and death along the way.

Tone painting abounds in this collection of modern-day madrigals, which feature Majel Connery and Elliot Cole’s indie vocals floating atop poised, balanced, and beautifully textured Baroque accompaniments. Yet the pieces expand upon the traditional roles of these period instruments, experimenting with low-pitched drones, unexpected instrument pairings, stereo sound, and intricately layered musical textures.

The 14 pieces range from classical chansons to singer-songwriter musical stylings, lilting lullabies to charming folk duets. Witty hooks and buoyant rhythms bring the poetry of Shakespeare’s lesser-known (or in this case, completely unknown) contemporaries clear into the 21st century, drawing connections through the timeless literary themes that have gripped writers for centuries.

But aside from the actual text setting, texture is of paramount concern in these musical arrangements, the counterpoint carefully shaped and articulated with precision, grace, and old world finesse. The result is a song cycle that echoes with the elegant charm of a Baroque dance suite and resonates with historical depth and drama.

It may not be Shakespearebut it’s poetry, through and through.