Born Plucky

Thomas Dunford, a teenage rockstar of the lute

Tom started playing the lute when he was five years old, and has been playing professionally since he was 14. Growing up he had posters on his wall of this really famous lutenist, Paul O’Dette, who’s an enormous bearded kind of hobbit figure. Where other kids had Baywatch posters in their bedrooms, he had this elfin king, Tolkien image.

When people listen to Glenn Gould playing the piano — Bach or something like that — they hear him humming in the background as if he was creating the music from scratch. It’s like that with actors, too. Al Pacino described Mark Rylance as someone who speaks Shakespeare like it was written last night, and Tom plays the lute like that. He plays in a very free style. It feels very improvisatory.

Because he’s young, he’s really eager to explore different repertoire. When we play Renaissance music by John Dowland, we do jokey encores that aren’t expected. For example, Tom was reviewed in a classical magazine as the Eric Clapton of the lute, so I thought this was a perfect opportunity to sing ‘Tears in Heaven’. Whereas some classical musicians would think it was corny, Tom loves that.

When I met Tom at age 24, 25, he seemed somewhat sweetly naive. I felt like I had to look after him, and take him under my wing. To go on a tour, just the two of you, without any manager, it’s scary stuff. Tom can be completely disorganised. Two weeks before we went on a tour to America, he said, ‘Oh, who’s bought the flight?’ I said, ‘You. They pay you back later on.’ He said, ‘Oh. I haven’t bought it. Or one for the lute.’ The lute has to have a seat of its own. He now books for himself and Mr Lute, who sits next to him.

Basically he’s like a teenager — as long as he’s got a bed, he’s happy. He’s like a troubadour, too. I’d look across at him in a really smart venue like the Washington Kennedy Center and think, there are holes in the middle of his trousers. Before our Carnegie Hall recital I forced him to go into H&M and buy some black trousers, no matter how cheap, because they would look at least new. Tom needs someone to do all of that for him. You need to get him on stage because that’s when he’s at his best. He’s brilliant. He’s still young, which makes it better because he’s not a worn-out, bitter musician. He really loves the lute and wants to go places with it.

It’s beyond him just being able to play the lute — it’s about him as a person. Every time he plays with me, people say, ‘I can’t believe how young he is,’ and ‘I can’t believe how he plays.’ In disguise they are saying, ‘Wow! He stole the show.’ It’s this really delicate music, like fine needlework in a tapestry, and everyone’s sitting in complete silence. There’s no shuffling. He manages to draw everybody in. That’s a really special talent.


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