“The music of the night” – Tafelmusik

Tim Douglas, Weekend Australian
Saturday 1/10/2011

IN MAY 1999, CANADIAN ASTRONAUT JULIE Payette, preparing for her maiden flight to the International Space Station, packed only the bare essentials: oxygen, water, food and a recording of baroque ensemble Tafelmusik performing Handel’s Messiah. The astronaut, herself a soprano and former member of the Tafelmusik choir, accompanied the recording to the galaxy’s outer reaches and, on playing it, exposed it to the stars.

“Yes, we’ve been played up there, in space,” boasts concept and program director Alison Mackay. And the Toronto-based orchestra is not coming back to earth any time soon. In Tafelmusik’s The Galileo Project: Music of the Spheres – touring Australia for Musica Viva in March – the period-instrument ensemble plays to the choreographed cues of high-definition telescopic images of the universe.

“It really is unique,” says Mackay, who has played double bass in the orchestra since its inception in 1979. “The audience will see a set piece with a giant round screen on to which are projected some 8o astronomical images as the orchestra plays.”

The unconventional concert, conceived in 2009 as part of celebrations for the 400th anniversary of the astronomical telescope, is held together by narrator Shaun Smyth, an actor who co-ordinates the affair with text referencing figures of the baroque, from Galileo to Newton. Mackay says while the chronological resonance between baroque music and Galileo is apparent, the parallels run far deeper.

“Galileo was himself an accomplished musician, and his family played a big part in the birth of opera,” she says, adding that the astronomer’s father was a prominent lutenist and musical theorist. “To make connections between the music and the universe and to share the sounds of baroque music the way people would have originally heard it, on the instruments of the time, is very exciting.”

The 17-piece ensemble will traverse Vivaldi, Monteverdi, Handel and Bach, among other baroque composers, as part of its maiden tour of Australia. Playing without scores, the musicians take their cues from images projected on to the giant screen and from music director Jeanne Lamon. “We had a longstanding dream of playing a show from memory,” Mackay says, “and it all came together with this project.”

In what is now a three-year collaboration, the Hubble telescope and some of the world’s leading astro-photographers donated the interplanetary images used. At some performances, astronomers have set up telescopes “so the musicians and the audience can see the sky the way Galileo would have seen it … The experience is quite profound, and I hope there might be a time or two when this might happen in Australia,” Mackay says.

Tafelmusik – a term common during the 17th and 18th centuries which, translated from German, means table music, or music for a feast – was founded 32 years ago. Mackay has watched it expand from a modest ensemble to the globe-trotting troupe it is today.

“We do about 100 performances a year and we tour regularly,” Mackay says. “We do travel, a lot But the important thing is we still manage to feel like a family.”


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