Musica Viva’s 2012 International Concert Season kicks off in March with an astronomical explosion courtesy of The Galileo Project, performed by Canada’s pre-eminent period ensemble, Tafelmusik.
The idea for this project came originally from a Tafelmusik subscriber, Dr John Percy, Professor of Astronomy at the University of Toronto, an expert on variable stars and stellar evolution, and former president of both the Royal Astronomical Society and the Royal Canadian Institute. He proposed a theatrically staged concert of baroque music on a stellar theme to celebrate the 400th anniversary in 2009 of Galileo’s use of the astronomical telescope.
Within a day of the first public airing of The Galileo Project, I started receiving emails to say how wonderful it was, and how Musica Viva should immediately arrange to bring it to Australia. I have to confess that I still haven’t seen the show in person, but the video of early performances was quite enough to convince me that this was just as stunning as everyone had said, and must be seen in Australia at the first opportunity.
The creative powerhouse behind the project is Alison Mackay, who has played violone and double bass with Tafelmusik since it was founded in 1979. Her previous directorial achievements with the ensemble include a festival in Toronto of music, art, dance, film and theatre inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses; a multi-cultural creation entitled “The Four Seasons”; and a celebration of architecture and the arts called “Sacred Spaces, Sacred Circles”.
Alison spent a year collecting ideas and writings for the show, and discussing musical choices with Music Director Jeanne Lamon, to best illustrate historic events, astronomical discoveries and images of the stars from the Hubble Space Telescope.
Louis XIV, the French “Sun King” at Versailles, for instance, created a “Palace of the Sun” to reflect the cosmology of the ancient world. Jean-Baptiste Lully, resident composer at Versailles, wrote some of his most magnificent music for the opera Phaeton, which is included in the production to exemplify the very immediate cultural links between music of the period and observations of the early stargazers.
Claudio Monteverdi’s ground-breaking opera, Orfeo, was composed in 1607 and first published in Venice in 1609, the year that Galileo took his newly created telescope from Padua to Venice as a gift for the Venetian Doge. Monteverdi was an exact contemporary with, and an acquaintance of Galileo, whose nephew, Alberto Galilei, composed the lute solo in the first half of the programme.
The musical, philosophical and scientific parallels continue through to Sir Isaac Newton, George Frideric Handel and Phillip Telemann in the eighteenth century, rounding out not with a sleep, but with reflections on the ancient concept of the “Music of the Spheres” – the music believed to be created by an ensemble of planets and stars moving through the heavens. The concert opens with a speech on the same theme from The Merchant of Venice: “There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st but in his motion like an angel sings, still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins.”
The overall effect is edifying and inspiring, as well as being wonderfully vivacious entertainment. We might have just missed the International Year of Astronomy (2009), but at least we get to see Tafelmusik!