The subject of today’s e-news Baroque at the Edge Artist Questionnaire is lute-player Elizabeth Kenny, a widely respected figure in British musical life who has performed and recorded as a soloist, as a member of ensembles such as the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and as the leader of her own group Theatre of the Ayre. Together with tenor Nicholas Mulroy and guitarist Toby Carr, she performs ‘Cubaroque’, a rare meeting of 17th-century European art-music and 20th-century Latin-American popular song, featuring music by (among others) Henry Purcell, Claudio Monteverdi, Silvío Rodríguez and Victor Jara. Nicholas Mulroy told us a little already about this programme in out last e-news; here’s what Liz had to say about it, and herself.
What age were you when you first picked up a lute, and what drew you to it?
I’m embarrassed: my wonderful guitar teacher Michael Lewin asked if I’d like to give the lute a try when I was about 15. “Er, nah, that sounds a bit boring” was my thought. I hope I said it more politely than that, but at any rate it wasn’t until I was an undergraduate that I borrowed one briefly, and then encountered it for real as a graduate guitarist at the Royal Academy of Music. Late developer.
Who did you study with, and who were your other early influences?
Looking back, the combination of Robert Spencer, with his love of song and historical imagination, and Nigel North, with his virtuosity and breathtaking sound, was fantastic, though a bit confusing at the time, as they had very different techniques and approaches. Both towering musicians, and so different that it was like throwing down a gauntlet to work out what my own approach would be (eventually).
What differences are there between playing the lute and playing the guitar?
The main difference is in the feel of how the sound is made. It’s not so much the fact that they are tuned very differently (and in the lute, as with the banjo, there are lots of different tunings to get your head around), but the difference between the lightly built lute and the more solid guitar, which is often best played with fingernails, is key. Having good fingernails was always a bit stressful when I was a guitarist (hazards of breaking one on a concert day…), so it was a relief to get closer into the sound by using my fingertips on the lute. Pressing into pairs of strings is also quite different: on the lute, if it feels good, it’s likely to sound good. And vice versa...
You created a ‘Lutes and Ukes’ project a few years back. Tell us something about it.
I was pondering how 17th-century groups of pluckers operated, as a lot of the music for the court masques and operas of that time is minimally notated, and therefore improvised. Orchestral discipline, great for written-down music, seemed too restrictive, but sometimes in continuo group improvisation I felt if it wasn’t organised at all it was too easy to cancel each others’ ideas out. I was listening a lot to the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, for no other reason than they’re great, and suddenly I realised they had this all down: everyone in the group was clear about their function in the sound, but it came across as free and spontaneous too. So I wrote a cheeky fan note to them and asked if I could chat about their rehearsal technique. It turns out that George Hinchliffe, their director, is a fount of knowledge about early music as well as everything else, and was up for some cross-pollination. We had four ukuleles and four lutes, varying sizes of each, from their group and from my own Theatre of the Ayre, and went from there with concerts in London, York, Germany, Belgium …. We’re getting back together for the Mayfield Festival in 2021, Covid permitting.
How many instruments do you own, and what are they?
Too many. We have a household rule now, one in, one out, so any new ones mean I have to sell one. I’ve got around 15: different tunings, shapes and sizes for repertoire from the smallest treble to the largest theorbo or chitarrone (actually I confess I have two of those, one in English, one in Italian tuning). My current house is the first time they’ve had a dedicated space, upstairs next to where the hamster cage used to be. I like to think they keep each other company.
What gave you the idea for ‘Cubaroque’?
Like most good ideas, this one wasn’t really mine: Nicholas Mulroy and I have played a fair few recitals together, and we did Silvío Rodriguez’s Cucurucurru paloma as an encore a while ago for the Vantaa Festiva in Finland. Nick mentioned he’d done some more Silvío and other Cuban songs with Toby Carr, who plays classical guitar as well as lutes. I listened to a few and was entranced, and the idea of combining the two areas of song, and instruments, evolved from there.
Which musicians, of any type, do you admire most?
Got to go back to Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain now they’re in my mind: they have the most wonderful way of downplaying their own virtuosity in the service of humour, pathos and a good time, which puts the audience experience at the centre of what is most important. But once you start listening you realise the creativity and sheer ‘chops’ at their disposal is immense. And they all sing too...
What interests do you have outside music?
I live in Salisbury, so beautiful walks are important, and I felt immensely lucky to build life around them during both lockdowns. I love theatre and books, too, but my guilty compulsion are box sets…. If I feel I need to justify the time spent, I combine fiddly lute-maintenance tasks with a good crime drama.
What person, living or dead, would you most like to meet?
I'd like to be a fly on the wall at JS Bach’s weekly church cantata rehearsals. How did he do it, and did everyone understand the sheer monumental beauty of what they were creating? Or were they all just getting on with it for the Sunday service deadline?
How do you relax?
See box sets, above. And swearing along with my teenage children. We’ve found it very helpful in 2020, and hope to rein it in a bit in 2021...
Tell us something about yourself you’d like us to know.
I have just done day 2 of the NHS Couch to 5k programme. Now that I’ve written that here I have peer pressure not to give up!
What’s your favourite note?
To misquote Tim Minchin, my fingers like F but the rest of me is drawn to F sharp...
‘Cubaroque’ is released on Sunday 10 January at 4pm.
Nicholas Mulroy’s live Zoom talk ‘Like Minds’ is the same day at 1pm.
Tickets for both events can be bought via our website