If you think the instrumentally correct Academy of Ancient Music -- an English ensemble formed in 1973 to reproduce, as truly as possible, the voice of early music as it sounded in its day -- is a serious and stodgy crew, give it a rest. Orchestra member David Carter -- who performs on the theorbo, the fourteen-stringed granddaddy of all lutes -- says it's all a matter of loving the sound and feel of the older instruments, rather than an attempt to simply preserve what's old as if it's a museum display. The theorbo -- an instrument as big as Carter himself, with a deep voice that rumbles way below the register of a classical guitar -- presents a challenge that's anything but old and musty.
"The tuning is different enough that it's kind of like learning Japanese," Carter says. And when put to work on something as airy and brilliant as a slip of a Bach canon, the theorbo, caught between the orchestra's sprightly strings and harpsichord, can end up sounding downright contemporary. In particular, Carter must add his own musical colors to the reading, because parts for the theorbo haven't been written down. And, he adds, early music is simply a different style: "It's not so polite. It has an immediate quality that makes it sound almost modern in a way, alongside the more conventional Handel and Bach."
Under the baton of violinist and associate director Andrew Manze, the theorbo never sticks out like a sore thumb. The ensemble handles its musical reproductions with fiery and able hands, Carter maintains, noting that while Manze displays virtuosic skill on his instrument, he's also a great leader: "He has a fantastic aural imagination -- he can imagine compelling musical shapes and has the gift to know how to ask for them." And that pays off: "You actually get to hear the point of playing the music on these older instruments." Listen up.