Chatting with Kevin Mason about the lute family is like talking to a royal genealogist about the noble houses of Europe: you’re apt to learn about the members’ origins and histories, their proclivities and shortcomings, and other details too arcane for the layman.

“Take the theorbo, for instance,” Mason says of his favorite lute. “It was developed by Italian humanists–the Florentine camerata–toward the end of the 16th century for the recitative style of singing, which they imagined to have been the way the ancient Greeks recited poetry. They called this jumbo version of the lute chittarone, after kithara, the harplike plucked string instrument they’d seen depicted on amphoras.” “Theorbo”–probably the more vulgar Italian term–replaced “chittarone” after the humanist movement died out, and the instrument made its way to other parts of Europe, quickly gaining popularity in Germany, England, and later France. “It proved to be more resonant than the regular lute for accompanying singers and had a richer bass,” Mason says. “Unlike other lutes, which were eventually taken up by amateurs, the theorbo was strictly for professionals. Its music is very difficult to memorize and play.”

Mason, a lute historian and player, holds a PhD in “historical performance practices” from Washington University–a now-defunct program that required a thorough knowledge of musicology and the mastery of a number of period instruments. (Mason’s dissertation is an authoritative history of the theorbo, soon to be published by England’s Boethius Press.) A saxophone major at first, Mason says he switched after hearing an album of lute music performed by virtuoso Julian Bream. His infatuation with pre-Baroque music was further fanned by contacts with seasoned specialists Nicholas McGegan and Mary Springfels, who were artists in residence at Washington University.

Still based in Saint Louis after graduate school, Mason free-lanced extensively throughout the country, doing frequent stints with the Harwood Early Music Ensemble in Chicago. Four years ago he decided to move here for good, turning his back on the east coast’s early-music meccas. He immediately joined Springfels’s Newberry Consort and has since performed with the City Musick and Music of the Baroque. Now in demand as one of a handful of expert lutenists in the world, Mason also directs the Collegium Musicum, a chorus at the University of Chicago devoted to medieval music. But his top priority is to firmly establish Orpheus Band, the chamber group he founded a couple of seasons ago to explore the vast but overlooked 17th-century repertoire for lutes and other strings.

Evidence of Mason’s passion for the lute is not hard to find in his Wrigleyville apartment. A theorbo and its siblings lie in one corner of the living room, gracefully at rest. Two smaller, half-pear-shaped blond cousins sit in open cases in the study, ripe for plucking. And on one wall, next to a cittern (another stringed instrument), is a framed poster of the celebrated Caravaggio canvas of a voluptuous young man holding a lute (circa 1595).

“The lute was the bread-and-butter instrument back in 16th-century Europe, second in prestige only to the voice,” says Mason, whose longish wavy hair and gentle features bear a striking resemblance to the itinerant musicians in Renaissance paintings. “Its origin can be traced to the oud, the Arabic counterpart which the Moors had brought to Spain 200 years earlier.” The oud helped convince many Europeans that Arabs weren’t barbarians, and music written specifically for the European lute was common in the 16th and 17th centuries, “a time of scientific and intellectual revolutions. It was a transition period for music too–comparable to the early 20th century–with a diversity of styles competing to replace the high Renaissance madrigal. The theorbo, for example, went hand in hand with the birth of opera. Monteverdi used it in his operas, like Orfeo, for dramatic intensity.”

Mason takes a lute in hand. “The question I encounter most often is why the bent neck? Two reasons: it breaks the tension of the strings, and it gives more balance to the sound.” The cittern, he says, though it looks like a lute, is really a member of the guitar family. “The two families were different in tuning and sound. The guitar was strummed, not plucked; it had a flat back, not round. It also enjoyed a different social status, being associated mostly with the lower classes.”

While most other stringed instruments have survived to the present, the lute family disappeared by mid-18th century. “The lute had gotten to be too complicated for its own good,” Mason explains. As the number of strings rose from 8 to as many as 24, the lute became too complicated for amateurs to play. It couldn’t compete with the new family of keyboard instruments, which had the volume to fit into a modern orchestra. And its use as a solo instrument also went out of fashion. Bach was the last major composer to write anything significant for the lute, Mason says.

With his Orpheus Band–Springfels, John Rozendaal, Melissa Trier Kirk, and Cynthia Koppelman–Mason hopes to revive popular interest in chamber music for the lute family. “People seem to go for the Zen-like quality in medieval music and the rhythm of Baroque music, but to them Renaissance music is still a big unknown.” In Orpheus’s final performances of the season, Monteverdi shares top billing with Purcell (represented by incidental music from his masque The Fairy Queen). The program also fulfills Mason’s wish to “work more with local singers.” Partnering the string band will be Patrice Michaels Bedi, a remarkably gifted and versatile soprano. She says she jumped at the chance “to do more chamberish interplay between myself and a small ensemble and to learn from Kevin the proper expression of early Italian texts.” As for Mason the lute proselytizer, there are plenty of passages both in the Italian Renaissance pieces he’s picked and in the Purcell spectacle that call for the theorbo.

The Orpheus Band performs tomorrow night at 8 PM at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, 2122 Sheridan Road in Evanston, and Sunday at 3 PM in Goodspeed Recital Hall, University of Chicago, 5845 S. Ellis. Tickets are $10-$12. For more info, call 549-2969.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.