Tafelmusik reviewed in the West Australian
William Yeoman, The West Australian
March 2, 2012
Recently the West’s Arts Editor Stephen Bevis, commenting on the definition of art in the context of Cottesloe’s Sculpture by the Sea, wrote, “(Art) can be high-minded polemic and debate, pure escapist entertainment or lots of time-wasting jibber jabber.”
True. But at its best it can also be an entertaining yet strongly educative experience. As I’m sure last Thursday night’s Musica Viva audience found Canadian Baroque orchestra Tafelmusik‘s The Galileo Project: Music of the Spheres, a combination of music, astronomy, theatre, photography, video and literature that’s literally out of this world.
Devised by the orchestra’s bassist Alison Mackay for the International Year of Astronomy in 2009, The Galileo Project features music from the time of Galileo, Kepler and Newton by composers such as Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Lully, Handel and Telemann performed beneath a large circular screen onto which are projected dazzling celestial photographs, mostly taken through the Hubble telescope, and animations.
Music and images are further linked by Canadian actor Shaun Smyth’s recitations from the works and letters of Shakespeare, Ovid, Galileo and many others to form a circular narrative that weaves together art, science, history and biography. More circles and ellipses are manifested in a large floor pattern representing the signs of the Zodiac and in the skilfully choreographed movements of the musicians as they turn on their axes or orbit their colleagues in complex overlapping patterns, the whole time playing from memory on historical instruments.
Certainly on this occasion – Tafelmusik’s first ever concert in Australia, which fact was marked by including images of the Southern Cross and references to Aboriginal astronomy in the program – the effect was breathtaking and so far removed from the staid, stuffy atmosphere of many classical music concerts as to be in a class of its own.
Of course the Australian Chamber Orchestra has been working along these lines for years – witness projects such as Musica Surfica, Peter and the Wolf with Peter Garrett and the collaborations such as that with photographer Bill Henson and sound artist Paul Healy.
But by working from a premise oriented towards both education and entertainment and by having performed the show entirely from memory countless times throughout Canada and the US, as well as in China, Tafelmusik and Smyth have now achieved a degree of fluency, freedom and coherence that made this performance something very special indeed.
Led from the violin by Tafelmusik’s musical director Jeanne Lamon, strings and winds together with harpsichord, baroque guitar and lute painted a musical picture every bit as vivid as the images of planets, stars and galaxies on the screen, their sense of ensemble and indeed pure delight reinforced rather than impeded by the complicated choreography which even required them to perform in the aisles – a rare treat for those sitting nearby.
Smyth was just as animated and engaging, the mythological tragedy of Phaeton, who insisted on driving the chariot of the sun for a day and nearly destroyed the earth in the process – an early environmental warning – and the sadness of Galileo’s persecution and incarceration by the Church superbly related.
So, can one really define art? Maybe not, but you sure know it when you see it. And this was art.