Some of Hopkinson Smith's most influential teachers died over 300 years ago. But that just goes with the territory for one of the world's leading lute players. The early string instrument expert is in the country for the first time for the New Zealand Festival, playing on the baroque guitar.
Described by the San Francisco Chronicle as "the finest lute player in the world today", Smith is an influential figure in the world of the nearly-lost early guitar family.
"It belonged to a bygone era. But even if the birth of this music is far, far away the message to the modern public is immediate - there's still much to say in these early repertoires."
Because of this, Hopkinson says what he hopes for after a show is not loud applause, but quiet. "If they're silent at the end of a piece, it means much more because it means you touched an inner sensitivity and awakened something - which doesn't often happen in this very busy and noisy modern world."
By his early 20s, having grown up playing the piano and trumpet and proficient with the guitar and classical guitar, he was studying music at Harvard University in Boston. The encouragement of a friend and a loaned lute from Boston's Museum of Fine Arts collection saw him take up the instrument that would define his musical career.
"At first you have to teach yourself. The notations tell you where to put your fingers on the instrument, but then you have to sense the music and shape it as best you can." He later moved to Switzerland to study early guitars at the early music academy Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, where he now teaches.
"It's the most beautiful instrument there is - the sound, the shape, the feel. It's a choice I would make again and again."
In the summers, he travelled to Catalonia to study under Spanish guitar great Emilio Pujol.
Smith has long admired the "energy and beauty" of Spanish composers - his performance for the festival pulls together various baroque guitar works from 17th- century Spain.
"It's the golden age of the guitar. There are pieces that are clearly inspired by popular music and at the other extreme are the pieces which are very composed and have a more sophisticated language. But all with great beauty."
Smith plays more than 30 concerts worldwide every year, most often as a soloist. "While I like to work with other people, my heart is more in the solo repertoire.
"There's so much music for these early instruments, you could spend many lives doing just that."
While in Wellington, he will also spend a day and a half with the local guitar and lute societies. Smith says expressive, gentle souls tend to be attracted to compositions from this period.
"The music of early plucked instruments, whether the lute or guitar, it comes from the heart. It touches an inner sensitivity."
Hopkinson Smith plays Spanish Music of the 17th Century today at Wesley Church, Taranaki St, 6.30pm.
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