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 wife—but now with the addition of their newborn child—Grad 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.