For lutenist Ronn McFarlane, a program titled "Blame Not My Lute" at the Round House Theatre Sunday night was no ordinary recital gig.
He had to make music that could tame tigers, cause leviathans to dance on sands and invoke the myriad powers that cultivated 17th-century Londoners vested in their newfangled musical instruments.
Narrator Robert Aubry Davis, prefacing each piece with florid but convincing literary references to the lute, conveyed a sharp impression of Elizabethan musical obsessions -- their reason as well as their rhyme. One crucial notion in an era that saw instrumental music struggle for independence from vocal forms was that solo instruments could directly express the deepest emotions.
One who coaxed from his instrument moods both serious and exuberant was John Dowland, whose jewel-like strophic lute songs often evoke comparisons to Schubert. Sunday night, Dowland could have been a soundtrack for humanist philosopher John Davies' "Objections Against the Immortality of the Soul," which assesses musical instruments as "instruments" by which we live and view the world. Dowland was also party to Kate's domestication through lute lessons in "The Taming of the Shrew" -- which offered intriguing commentary on musical instruments as tools for social control.
Playing straight man to some of England's wittiest -- as in a performance of the exquisitely melancholy "Lacrimae" -- McFarlane went with the flow. He played along with the moods while weaving delicate timbres and keeping a sharp musical focus. And, when called for in pieces like Dowland's "Fantasie," he showed quicksilver virtuosity.