Tafelmusik in the Weekend West

Spheres of Influence
William Yeoman, Weekend West
28 January 2012

Listening to music of the past is like seeing the light of a star long dead. There’s that same sense of presence and absence you get looking at a photograph. So to combine Baroque music and projected images of the night sky with readings from the works of astronomers past in one magical concert is to experience joy tempered by wistfulness.

One of the world’s leading period instrument orchestras, the Canadian-based Tafelmusik, was formed in 1979 and is Baroque orchestra in residence at the University of Toronto. It regularly tours the world giving concerts and workshops, and its discography runs to more than 75 recordings.

Alison Mackay has played double-bass and violone with Tafelmusik since its inception. Her interest in education and multidisciplinary concert programming has resulted in such diverse projects as the children’s tale Baroque Adventure: the Quest for Arundo Donax, the multicultural creation The Four Seasons, a Cycle of the Sun, and a celebration of architecture and the arts Sacred Spaces, Sacred Circles.

In 2007, Tafelmusik was approached by music lover John Percy, professor of astronomy at the University of Toronto, with an unusual idea for a concert. Why not celebrate in music the 400th anniversary in 2009 also the International Year of Astronomy of Galileo’s first public demonstration of the astronomical telescope?

Mackay picked up the globe and ran with it. The result was The Galileo Project: Music of the Spheres, which featured the music of Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, Telemann and others, played from memory against a backdrop of high-definition images from the Hubble telescope, Canadian astronomers and astrophotographer Alan Dyer. Actor Shaun Smyth was also brought on board to recite the words of Galileo, Newton and Kepler.

Now Tafelmusik is bringing The Galileo Project to Australia for Musica Viva. To celebrate, they’ve included an Australian component.

“I wanted to include a component on Aboriginal astronomy,” says Mackay on the line from Toronto. “So I got in touch with Australian astrophysicist Ray Norris, who is an expert on the subject and who was extremely helpful. And Alan (Dyer) works quite often in Australia, so we have some wonderful images of the Australian night sky.”

However the basic structure of the original program remains, with the music orbiting around the twin suns of the Galileo anniversary and the some of the music performed as part of a month-long Festival of the Planets which took place in Dresden in 1719. The festival featured operas, balls and concerts in honour of each planet in the solar system, and Handel was one of the composers asked to contribute. So we have music from the time of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and from the time of Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727).

In Galileo’s time the relationship between the arts and the sciences was much closer than today’s; indeed, not only was Galileo’s father Vincenzo a famous lutenist and composer; both men experimented with mathematical formulas in relation to lute strings, while Galileo and his brother Michelangelo were gifted lutenists. A solo lute piece by Michelangelo is featured in The Galileo Project.

Some commentators such as physics and mathematics professor Mark Peterson, author of Galileo’s Muse (Harvard University Press) have even gone so far as to claim that “it was the mathematics of Renaissance arts, not Renaissance sciences, that became modern science”.

Astrology and astronomy were also virtually synonymous. And there was the concept of The Music of the Spheres, which Mackay says is another theme running through The Galileo Project. “Our program begins and ends with reflections on the ancient concept of the Music of the Spheres, thought to have been created by a heavenly ensemble of planets and stars making music together as they move through space.”

Mackay says the The Galileo Project has been an enormous hit, not only with concertgoers and school groups but with astronomers. “A lot of them come to the concert and are very moved to see the fruits of their labours heightened by music.”


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Welcome to Musica Viva’s International Concert Season blog. Here you can follow and read more about our wonderful touring artists.

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