Interview with Massimo Lonardi by Andrea Aguzzi (December 2009)

The first question is almost trivial and obvious: How did your love and interest for the guitar and the lute start?

I was born in 1953 and started studying music by myself when I was 13 years, as rock guitarist (I loved, and love, especially Jethro Tull). After a while I decided to enroll at the Conservatorio Giuseppe Verdi in Milan where I had the good fortune to have as a teacher of classical guitar Ruggero Chiesa that, from the earliest years of study, introduced me to the music for lute. Thanks to my mother, who is a painter and decorator, I already knew the arts of the Renaissance, but I knew nothing about the music history of this period that I began to love through the transcriptions for guitar of my teacher. As a result, since with the guitar I did not play anything but classical lute tablature, I decided to dedicate myself exclusively to the study of performance practice of the ancient instruments and attended several classes with Hopkinson Smith.

You graduated from the Conservatory of Milan with Ruggero Chiesa and then studied with Hopkinson Smith, what are your memories of these two teachers?

About Ruggero I especially remember the great willingness, patience and love with which he taught. Hokpinson Smith, besides being a great performer (he is still the lutenist whom I feel closer and grateful) is, as everyone knows, a great teacher with extraordinary insight and affectionate irony.

Your CD for the Stradivarius, “La Suave Melodia, received, correctly, much praise and positive comments from the press, would you tell us how it started this project and why you choose the formula of the guitar trio, accompanied by Lorenzo Micheli and Matteo Mela? How was it working with these guitarists, stylistically and registry younger than you?

Some time ago, Lorenzo Micheli told me that he intended to join the summer school that I make every year in Brisighella. I thought he was joking, but instead I found him there, together with his teacher Frederic Zigante (later, also came Leopoldo Saracino). I was surprised and honored to have, even for a short time, students of this caliber that formed the Master Class of the highest level I’ve ever had.
The following year, with Lorenzo and Matteo Mela, another guitarist of exceptional level at which I had the pleasure of giving some advice about the ancient performance practice, we formed the trio composed by theorbo, baroque guitar and arciliuto (or two Baroque guitars and arciliuto), to realize the project “The suave melody dedicated to Andrea Falconieri and his time. After running this program for a year we decided to register it for the Stradivarius.

Working with Lorenzo and Matteo is for me one of the biggest satisfaction because we are friends and we have an absolute musical understanding. And cooperate with them that, being classical guitarists use nails (though rather short) was an opportunity to define more clearly the fact that, by studying the various documents of the time, I have formed about the sound of plucked instruments in the Italian and Spanish Baroque. Many of my colleagues are still convinced that lutes and similar instruments should be played anyway without the use of nails, but this does not correspond to historical reality.

The right hand setting according to the Renaissance practice (very horizontal with the thumb under the index, clearly outlined in the preface of the tarlature by Vincenzo Capirola ca.1517-Venice, and documented by an enormous amount of iconographic documents) does not require the use of nails (which would only bother with this position), but for the Italian Baroque, things change dramatically. Alessandro Piccinini, which I think was the greatest Italian lutenist-composer who lived between ‘500 and ‘600, in the precious instructions in its “Tablature for lute and chitarrone” published in Bologna in 1623, explicitly requires the use of nails for the right hand.

Having recommended that the thumbnail shall not be very long he writes: “ Le altre tre dita. cioè Indice, Medio, Anulare, i quali certamente debbono havere le ugne tanto lunghe che avanzino la carne, e non più, che abbiano dell’ovato, cioè ; che siano più alte in mezo; s’adopreranno in questa maniera ; che quando si farà una pizzicata … si piglierà detta corda con la sommità della carne, urtandola verso il fondo , si farà, che l’ugna lasci sfuggire tutte due le corde, e faranno armonia buonissima….”.

Obviously this type of attack of the strings, combined with the different approach of the right hand in use since the late Renaissance (less horizontal than that used in the Renaissance and more like, provided the support of the last finger to the soundboard, to that of modern classical guitar, with the thumb out), can only generate a different lute sound from that obtained with the approach of the Renaissance. But we must not believe that this practice is an anomaly or just a quirk due to Piccinini and the analysis of the iconographic sources confirm, in some cases, the use of nails and Filippo Della Casa, one of the last Italian lutists, in his manuscript “ Suonate di Celebri Auttori … “ parla di “ … tasteggiare con le unghie … “ confirming the continuity of this practice, at least for Italy until the end of ‘700, while in the imprimatur by Kapellmeister Sebastian Alfonso for the guitar book by Gaspar Sanz we read:” There are some who play with and nail you ravish your soul while others scratch it … ” So what matters is how, the quality of touch with which the nails are used. For the CD dedicated to Falconieri, being primarily a Renaissance lute player that normally does not use nails, I was allowed to grow a blade of nails in the format recommended by Piccinini.

How did your collaboration with the project Guitar Collection of Stradivarius start and how is going on?
The collaboration with the Guitar Collection project was born thanks to Frederic Zigante. I owe to him the idea of getting an anthology devoted to renaissance guitar music “ Comiença la musica para Guitarra” (the small Renaissance guitar is played without nails, using a technique similar to that of the lute). Soon, in the same series directed by Zigante, I will publish an anthology devoted to the vihuela tablature books printed in Spain. I am very grateful to Frederic and the Stradivarius for giving me the opportunity to realize these projects.

You seem to prefer a particular repertoire, is there one author in particular that enhances specifically the way you play and with whom you are more at ease?
As I said I prefer the Italian Renaissance repertoire. The authors with whom I feel more at home are Francesco da Milano and Petro Paulo Borrono, then, of course, I love John Dowland, and among the authors who performed with the Spanish vihuela, Luys Milan and Luys De Narvaez.

Lately we are seeing a series of “rediscovery” of authors and artists that were ignored before and new music edition extremely nice from the philological point of view (vintage instruments, recovery of original transcripts, etc.), do you consider this historical research exhausted or do you think that is still “space” for relevant “discoveries” of unusual repertoire of significant value?
I think that without any doubt we will check discoveries of great value because the repertoire for lute and similar instruments, considering the relatively little-known manuscripts, is enormous.
What are the technical differences between playing a lute, a Renaissance guitar and a theorbo?
The most significant differences relate to the setting of the right hand. That is why I chose to dedicate myself mainly to the solo repertoire of the Renaissance lute and vihuela, while I stopped playing the theorbo and Baroque guitar (which require a right hand’s technique closer to that of the modern guitar fingering and the use of index- medium picking in place of alternating thumb-index featuring in the Renaissance practice more congenial to me). Currently I play the arciliuto especially in the ensemble music. I love to accompany the voice.
I find very fascinating the idea of a rigorous philological repeat of a repertoire of several centuries ago, interpreting this music with vintage instruments. How much can be different your way of playing different than the one of that era?
Would you like to talk about your instruments, their history and how they came to you through time? As I explained in response to a previous question, I try to bring as much as possible closet the way I play to everything we now know about performance practice and style of the authors that I play.

You play with vintage instruments and with copies of recent construction, which relationship have you established with the luthiers for the construction and maintenance of your guitars and lutes? Do you collaborate with the makers of confidence?
I work with some luthiers of confidence that showed me all their patience and understanding.

What does improvisation mean for your music research? Do you think it’s possibile to talk about improvisation for classical music or we have to turn to other repertories like jazz, contemporary music, etc.?
As everyone knows, improvisation played a key role in the Renaissance’s music (The famous “Tratado de Glosas” – 1553 – by Diego Ortiz is simply a method of improvisation). The Baroque is the triumph of extemporary execution, just remember the practice of basso continuo and vocal and instrumental ornamentation, but also in the classical-romantic period improvisation played an important role, do not forget that Mozart and Beethoven were great improvisers, while today this art has remained primarily the preserve of certain musical genres such as jazz or rock or a part of contemporary music. Unfortunately I’m not a good improviser (my character prevents it), but I played and recorded with exceptional improvisers like the harpsichordist and organists Ottavio Dantone and Guido Morini or cornet Doron David Sherwin, and maybe I learned something.

I am a lover of contemporary music and I was quite impressed to see you playing the lute in the video of CATULLVS, musica by Maurizio Pisati, where you play in combination with percussion and electronic instruments. How did start this collaboration with Pisati? It was only a fact in your musical journey? What do you think about, more generally, the use of vintage instruments in different contexts from the original ones, such as in contemporary music?
I was fortunate to study composition with Azio Corghi, and for some years I served both as a guitarist than as a lutenist in his group of chamber music in the 70s with whom I attended a few concerts. So I’m not new to collaboration in this area and I believe that the use of antique instruments can be for a composer of today a new resource and a challenge.
Outside classical music and music for classical guitar do you listen to other genres?
I listen to a lot of Rock of the ’60s and ’70s: Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, but alos this one is now Ancient Music (David Gilmour is my favorite electric guitarist for the simplicity and lyricism of improvisations, and I respect much Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, who doesn’t play with the plectrum, but with the fingers of his right hand, using a technique similar to that of the late Renaissance lute: pinky and thumb resting outside alternating with index or middle). I also like Sting but when he performes the songs of The Police or Moon Over Bourbon Street, not when he sings Dowland! I have an old love for jazz (Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Chick Corea …) and the Bossa Nova. I am interested in French and Italian singer-songwriters and folk music, twenty years ago I published a small anthology of folk songs in collaboration with Brigitte Gras.
What do you think about the discographic market crisis, with the transition to digital downloading in mp3 and all this new scenario?
I’m sorry but, although I have recorded a fifty discs between LP and CD, I don’t understand anything about these arguments. I apologize.

Please tell us five essential records, to have always with you .. the classic five discs for the desert island …
Stand Up by Jethro Tull, The Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalm, Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, the concertos for violin and orchestra in Mozart’s version of Giuliano Carmignola and quartets by Beethoven played by Quartet Italian if it’s possible I would add The Dream of the Blue Turtless by Sting, for the beauty of the songs and the sax of Branford Marsalis).
What are your five favorite scores?
Five fantasies by Francesco da Milano, but I don’t tell you which ones.
The blog has recently opened a new section dedicated to young graduates and graduates, what advice can you give to those who, after years of study, decided to start a career as a musician?
I would advice to young guitarists to pay particular attention to the ensemble and chamber music, and provided they do not use long nails and have the flexibility needed to experiment with the old approach, to try to play the guitar and baroque theorbo. Currently, a good performer of “basso continuo” has broader employment opportunities than those offered at a solo, but the most important thing is dedicated themselves to what one believes and loves anymore.
Whith who would you like to play?
Francesco da Milano or Luys Milan, but I’m not ready yet.

What are your next projects? What are you working on?

As I said I have prepared for the Stradivarius, an anthology devoted to music for vihuela and, having been run well in concert, I would record the new program dedicated to the 700 Italian with Lorenzo Micheli and Matteo Mela. Continuous concert activity both as a soloist accompanied by other singers. With the assistance of the harpsichordist Maria Barbero I was a few trusted friends and musicians I direct the Conserto Vago. With this group, and the singer-actress Renata Fusco, we recently recorded the “Villanelle alla Napolitana Renaissance” for the magazine Amadeus.
Thank you very much Maestro.