SLEGS Summer Meeting Report 2023
Our summer meeting was very well attended. It opened with two duets played by Joanna
Allsop and Tanya. They have been practicing together on their spare Sundays and prepared
two Elizabethan dances for us. Both pieces were gentle and lilting as both performers took
turns playing the written line and the decoration. It is a rare treat to hear duets at our
meetings, and congratulations to Tanya for making her first SLEGS meeting performance.
Glen Robertson played A Scots Tune from the Pickering Lute Book, Bodachan A’mhìrean
from Betsy Smalls Gaelic Airs book and Anon. Recercar from a Venetian Manuscript circa
1520 featuring a “Burgundian cadence”. As ever, Glen played with a clear bright tone and
Society co-founder Bill Samson was the first to perform on a guitar in this meeting. The
guitar itself was built by Bill in 2015. It is a copy of the Torres FE18 Guitar, which he has
held in his own hands. Bill played two pieces, Carcassi Opus 59, nos. 1 and 2. Both parts of
the piece had a very nostalgic air to them and were played delicately but confidently.
Alastair Merrill also joined us to play an eight-course lute built by Larry Johnson. Alastair
performed first an anonymous prelude from the Sampson Lute Book and then a Neusidler
Preamble. Alastair played both pieces in different styles and his lute sounded sweet and clear.
His lute has had some repairs and alterations made by Tony Johnson, our guest speaker for
the afternoon, so Alastair is one of our lucky members who enjoys owning such a quality
Eric Thomas followed on, also playing a renaissance lute. He had a very international
program for us and played one piece by Claudin De Sermisy, one from Francesco Da Milano
and pieces from the first pages of the Rowallan Lute Book. Eric played the pieces in a
beautiful medley showing off his impeccable rhythm, impressing us greatly.
After performing on her viol at our last meeting, Luisa McMinn returned this time with her
Theorbo. The instrument itself was built by James Marriage and is based on a Matteo Sellas
instrument of 1640. Luisa played two pieces for us, the first being a Piccinini piece from
1623 followed by a Prelude and Minuet by Robert de Visée. Both pieces were played from
“A Tutor for Theorbo” which has a grand repertoire of period music for the instrument. Luisa
played very well as she highlighted how graceful the theorbo can sound.
Sara Salloum joined us to show off one of her own Tony Johnson lutes. Sara played “Orlando
Sleepeth”, attributed to John Downland and read from the Margaret Bord lute book, which
has formed a key part of Sara’s PhD research. The lute sounded exquisite and in her own
words “chimey”, which was a specific request to Tony when he was building the instrument.
Sara played one piece during the regular players’ meeting but would play again during Tony’s
Tony Johnson himself also played during our meeting on one of his own lutes. The
instrument he chose was a wonderfully crafted swan-neck, 14 course, 24 string baroque lute –
“The more strings the better” as we say at SLEGS. Tony played a Passacaglia by Weiss
which highlighted the whole range of the instrument. Tony can certainly build a lute, and he
plays it very well too.
Co-founder of the Scottish Lute & Early Guitar Society, Rob MacKillop also attended our
summer meeting. He brought with him a copy of a Vincente Arias guitar. Rob told us that
Arias was one of the only contemporary competitors to Torres in terms of the quality and
sound of the instruments. Rob played a collection of Catalan pieces that reminded him of his
time busking in Barcelona and of the generous old ladies who always dropped some change
into his case. Some highlights of his performance included the harmonic-laden passages in
“Thieves Song” which rang “clear as a bell” from the gut strings on the guitar.
Bruce Roth is also a proud owner of an instrument modified by Tony Johnson. Before playing
he told us that a visit to Tony’s workshop is worth it just for the view, the tea and the
conversation – the lutes are a bonus. Bruce had three pieces prepared on his renaissance lute.
Firstly “The Antycke” with no attributed composer, followed by a Pavane and rounded off
with a Galliard, both by Pierre Attaignant. Bruce showed a great technique with his plucking
hand, hopefully we hear more from Bruce at our next meetings.
Joanna Allsop, half our opening performance duo, finished off our players’ meeting.
Although this time she played a 13-course baroque lute, which like her renaissance lute was
built by her father, the distinctive lattice style rose being a trademark feature of both
instruments. Joanna played “Lillybollaro” from the Balcares Manuscript and made great use
of the diapason strings and the top register of the instrument. Joanna’s father has only built
two lutes in total so it must have been lovely for him to be in attendance and see his
instruments being appreciated by the society members.
After a break for tea, cake and instrument swapping, expert luthier Tony Johnson joined us as
our guest speaker for the meeting. Tony told us of how he came to build lutes, as he had
originally trained and worked a violin maker. Although he would come to build lutes through
a love of early music, in fact, as Tony told us, his favourite music to play is “Bach, Bach and
Tony has experience building a great number of lutes of different shapes and styles. He had
with him his 14-course baroque lute, and pinned up behind him was a schematic of a
Hoffman swan-neck lute which he had drafted. In addition there was Sara’s instrument,
which is one of two, built together. Sara and Tony recounted the process of creating the two
instruments. There certainly seems to be a magic involved when the luthier and the lutenist
share their ideas and collaborate to create an instrument which the maker is proud of, and that
the player prizes.
One of the most important factors in the sound of a lute is the choice of the various woods
that it is made from, and Tony is certainly an expert in that area. Both of Sara’s lutes have
backs made from Plum and Pear wood, leading to them being nicknamed “The Fruity Lutes”.
However, Tony does feel that the soundboard is the soul of the instrument. He impressed us
all greatly when he explained the purpose of the mysterious cube on the soundboard of his
own baroque lute. The cube itself turned out to be a small block of ebony temporarily secured
to the instrument in order to dampen a “wolf tone” from the chanterelle. His ability to
identify the note, find the resonant spot on the sound board and shift the energy of the note to
the pitches either side of it is clearly an indication of his skill and prowess as a luthier.
It was wonderful to hear from Tony, and we hope he knows how much joy his instruments,
and the ones he has modified, bring us at our meetings. The number of questions asked, as
well as the interest and enthusiasm shown by everyone at the meeting, was a clear reflection of how much we all enjoyed his talk.