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18.10.12

Thomas Dunford at the Maison Française

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

As the candidates rehearsed their cutting remarks before Tuesday night’s debate, two men shared a very different stage in the ballroom of La Maison Française: French lutenist Thomas Dunford (pictured) welcomed Iranian-French percussionist Keyvan Chemirani for an amiable encounter between musical worlds. Though Dunford headlined the evening, it was marked throughout by collaborative bonhomie. On one occasion Dunford invited Robert Aubry Davis -- who was recording the event for later broadcast on Millennium of Music -- to recite some lute-themed verses by period poets over the music, and the two shared a natural cadence. The interplay of styles and media under 23-year-old Dunford’s mellow leadership made for an unusually intimate evening.

Dunford began with a few subdued solos by English Renaissance composer John Dowland (1563–1626). Then Chemirani joined him for more Dowland and for two pieces by the German-Italian virtuoso Giovanni Geronimo Kapsperger (1580–1651), with Chemirani playing the zarb, a resonant Persian goblet drum, and the udu, an earthenware jar used in West African music. Two dazzlingly polyrhythmic solo improvisations by Chemirani rounded out the program, along with two improvised duos -- one using Baroque themes, and the other, an encore, riffing on modern styles from funk to flamenco. The combination of Dunford’s early European music with Chemirani’s world percussion sound (based in the Persian classical tradition, and also embracing African and Indian influences) was unforced and appealing, especially in the sultry groove laid down for Dowland’s Lachrimae pavane.

Dunford’s relaxed demeanor masked a formidable technique. Seemingly without effort, he elicited warm, clear-sounding tones from across the wide range of the long-necked archlute and threaded them together with a true sense of line. In faster passages, though, some notes came out choked or twangy. These rough edges -- never entirely smoothed away even by masters of the antiquated lute, which always sounds a bit muffled compared to its modern descendants -- will undoubtedly be minimized as Dunford develops his sureness of touch.

Dunford was a sensitive collaborator, picking up subtle influences from his fellow performer. He seemed at his best when improvising, employing extreme contrasts of dynamics, tempo, and range, and indulging in some satisfyingly rich, theorbo-like bass notes. As a soloist, though, he could have done more to enliven and sell the music. Fine lute playing often affects a studied languor while smoldering with rhythmic intensity beneath the surface; Dunford’s placid solos somewhat lacked this energetic underpinning. It would be nice to see his more spontaneous improvisational side unlocked in the rest of his solo work.

The next concert at La Maison Française is the long-anticipated return of pianist Alexandre Tharaud (October 26, 7:30 pm), for which no tickets remain.

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