As with most great artists, Paul O'Dette experienced something of an epiphany that drew him to his chosen instrument.
He tried piano first, but that didn't take. Then came more enthusiastic studies on the violin, until a teacher shackled his sense of discovery, sending him straight into the rebellious ranks of rock 'n' roll and the electric guitar. A thirst for greater technique led to classical guitar.
Then O'Dette heard it: the lute, the multistringed instrument with the gloriously fanciful tone that, for many, defines the sound of Renaissance music. During the 16th century, the instrument serenaded kings, and its practitioners were held in as much esteem as any poet, philosopher, artist or architect of the day.
"I found a recording of Julian Bream playing lute music from the Royal Courts of Europe," O'Dette said. "As soon as I heard the sound of the instrument, I was transported. There was something about the character, the color, the whole mystery of the sound of the instrument that grabbed me and said, 'This is what you must do.'"
O'Dette is a bit of a Renaissance man of Renaissance music. He is a professor of lute and director of early music studies at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.; he organizes the esteemed Boston Early Music Festival; he is an avid researcher of lute music; and he conducts and directs everything from Baroque orchestras to operas.
Then there is the no small matter of his reputation as an instrumentalist: He is considered one of the finest lute players — and, by many critics, the very best — on the planet. An oft-quoted review from The Globe and Mail in Toronto describes O'Dette as "the clearest case of genius ever to touch the instrument."
In conversation, O'Dette is far too unassuming to characterize his playing in such a way. He speaks in scholarly terms about the instrument, its history and the music that brings it to life. But what comes across is the animation in his voice when he discusses the lute, its place in a past world and the excitement it triggers for him in solo performances.
"It's what gets me up in the morning and makes me stay up all night," O'Dette said. "The genius of this music, the sophistication, the depth of it is of the level of the Leonardo da Vincis and the Michelangelos.
"The court lute players in the 16th century were in the same circles as all the greatest painters and literary giants. They were getting paid more than Leonardo da Vinci was, too. That's how great the greatest were and how influential they were at the time."
But that was the 16th century, when the lute enjoyed immense popularity. With obviously fewer lute artists today, O'Dette is devoted to creating the kind of positive profile needed to maintain a similarly respectful level of musicianship.
"There is no question that the lute was the most important instrument of the 16th century," he said. "It was the instrument that all educated members of society learned how to play. And because there were so many people that played it, the performance level was very, very high.
"Any time you have a pursuit of any type that a large number of people practice, the level of proficiency is going to go up. Think of the level of college basketball today. It's un believably high because thousands of kids devote hours and hours to it. And they have lots of great role models.
"Now imagine living in the 16th century. Instead of wanting to become college basketball players, people wanted to become the best lute players in the world. There was such amazing competition and lots of incredible role models. And that always raises the standards."
O'Dette's solo lute performance Wednesday at the Singletary Center for the Arts — a benefit for the University of Kentucky Guitar Program Scholarship Fund and his first Lexington concert since 1987 — will be devoted to three such role models. His program will center on works by artists whom O'Dette considers the greatest Italian lutenists of the 16th century — "men who were compared to Orpheus at the time."
■ Francesco da Milano, "probably the most famous instrumentalist of the 16th century," O'Dette says. "His music has very clean lines and clear symmetrical phrases. It's elegantly crafted with a lot of virtuoso passage work."
■ Alberto de Ripa, who "was far more impression istic. His music had more to do with texture, color and sonority. It experimented a lot with voicings for chords using different registers of the instrument."
■ Marco dall'Aguila, whose "music is far less well-known. It's also very medieval-sounding — a little less civilized on one hand and more emotional and impassioned on the other."
"To me, this music is supposed to sound completely new, self-evident and revelatory all at the same time," O'Dette says. "That's what it is all about. It's about rediscovering music as if you have never experienced it before."