It all started when a Canadian astronomer approached Jeanne Lamon of the Toronto-based Baroque ensemble Tafelmusik about exploring ways to mark the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first public demonstration of the telescope.
"He knew our music," explains longtime music director Jeanne Lamon, "and he said, 'The reason I'm approaching you is because I love your programming, and I know that the period of music you specialize in is exactly right for Galileo. Is there something you could do with this?' I passed it right on to Alison McKay, our double bass player, who has an amazingly broad knowledge base and is a very creative programmer." And that's how the Galileo Project was born.
After careful research, Alison McKay created a choreographed multi-media project combining the story of Galileo, images from the Hubble space craft, and music of Galileo's time — often with an astronomical connection. Tafelmusik has performed The Galileo Project all over the world, and they've just released it as a combination DVD/CD set on their own record label.
"One of the things that's particularly remarkable about it is that all the musicians have memorized all of the music," Lamon says. "This is a very unusual thing, and it means there's no music on stage. There's a much more direct connection between the musicians and the audience." This also allows the musicians to become part of the presentation.
There are times when on stage, they represent the stars and planets, "which is the continuo section as the planets revolved around the sun," Lamon explains, "which is of course Galileo's big pronouncement. He was the first to prove that the earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around. That's why the church put him under house arrest for the rest of his life, because that was contrary to divine scripture. So that's an interesting time that he lived in, and that's the part of the story we tell during the concert."
Excerpts from Jean-Baptiste Lully's opera Phaeton are one of the highlights of this project. Phaeton's father is Apollo, the god of the sun. Phaeton begs his father to allow him to drive his chariot. As his father fears, Phaeton crashes into earth bursting into flames which become the tail of a comet. As the story is told, the members of Tafelmusik circle on stage to imply the rotation of the planets that causes the changes in the seasons. As part of the choreography, each season is represented by a different soloist, according to Jeanne Lamon. Their silver-haired oboist John Abberger represents Old Man Winter. "We thought, OK, winter, it's got to be the guy with the long white hair, right? For shaggy locks, that was definitely planned according to who looked the part."
Selections from an opera by Monteverdi appear on this recording because it was written during a very significant astronomical year. "His opera Orfeo was written in the same year that Halley's comet was first seen," Lamon explains, "and that's 1607. So that's a very telling thing. Halley's comet then comes back later in the 17th century when Lully was writing his operas, then it comes back again in the mid 1700's and so we play [Monteverdi's] music each time Halley's comet comes back."
There is also music from the Dresden Court, which took part in the biggest festival of the arts in the 18th century, a royal wedding celebration designed as a festival of the planets. Silvius Leopold Weiss was a very famous lutenist, and member of the Dresden court orchestra. On this recording, we hear a reconstructed movement from his Lute Concerto in C major, "Our lutenist is an extremely wonderful musician and very talented," says Lamon, "And he not only plays the lute well, he also composes well. And so he can play this concerto and he's written orchestral parts that work with it."
Jeanne Lamon says The Galileo Project has not just been a fun creative challenge. By releasing it on both CD and DVD, they're reaching new audiences, from scientific communities to tech-savvy teenagers. Tafelmusik has another multi-media project underway, called, House of Dreams. This presentation features music that may have accompanied the beautiful art collections of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Classical MPR is giving away copies of this week's featured disc on New Classical Tracks, The Galileo Project from Tafelmusik. Enter here, and don't forget to read the rules: