The term “Renaissance man” fits Galileo Galilei to a T. The astronomer who famously insisted that the Earth revolved around the sun also was a philosopher, an author and a musician.
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra explores the connections between music and astronomy in the “Galileo Project: Music of the Spheres.” Presented by Da Camera of Houston, the multimedia concert will be staged on Thursday at the Wortham Theater Center.
People say they’ve never seen anything like it,” says Jeanne Lamon, Tafelmusik’s concertmaster and chief artistic advisor, “and that’s because there isn’t anything like it.”
Combining music, theater and projected images, the Galileo Project is visually dominated by dazzling photos of the cosmos (provided by NASA) on big round screen. Against this backdrop, Tafelmusik plays music by Antonio Vivaldi, Claudio Monteverdi, Jean-Baptiste Lully, J.S. Bach and other baroque composers. Between selections, actor Shaun Smyth reads literary excerpts touching on the life and times of Galileo, and also the scientist Isaac Newton.
“The Galileo Project was created in 2009, for the International Year of Astronomy,” Lamon says. “A professor of astronomy at the University of Toronto approached us with the idea. He was on the committee for the international year and was trying to bring astronomy to the wider world.”
The idea was developed by Tafelmusik bassist Alison Mackay – Lamon calls her the orchestra’s “resident genius for programming” – who created a script for the show.
Soon, says Lamon, it became apparent that some kind of strong visual element would have to be part of the presentation.
“We wanted to do justice to the astronomy – just playing the music and talking about Galileo wouldn’t cut it.”
The production was put into workshop at the Banff Centre, an arts facility in the Canadian Rockies, and premiered there in 2009.
Two years later, music critic James Oestreich of the New York Times was in Toronto for a performance of the show. He called it “a superb evening,” and “an event steeped in intellect and imagination.”
Since then, the Galileo Project has toured to Japan, China, Korea, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand and Mexico. In the U.S., it’s been seen in Los Angeles and Kansas City.
Lamon says the show’s theatrical elements and visual images have an immediate appeal to people looking for something outside the traditional classical concert format. But she also believes a subtler factor is winning over audiences. Every note of the program has been memorized by the Tafelmusik Orchestra, allowing the players to move around freely on stage and even into the audience.
“At first,” Lamon recalls, “some of the musicians were excited by the idea of memorizing all the music. And others – like me – were hesitant. But now I think it’s way more fun to play from memory. It’s a more intimate experience. Now, I’m starting to see music – stands as a wall between myself and the audience.”
The Galileo Project also has been released by Tafelmusik on CD and DVD. Copies will be available for purchase at Thursday’s concert.
© Colin Eatock 2014