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“It’s breathtaking…The achievement here is enough to make the stars weep.” – Sarah Liss, cbc.ca

Heavenly – that’s a concise but accurate description of Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra’s newest release, The Galileo Project: Music of the Spheres – a fusion of the arts, science and culture in the 17th and 18th centuries captured in an imaginative DVD and CD soundtrack commemorating Galileo’s first public demonstration of the telescope. It’s not only heavenly in its subject matter, but it’s pure heaven both visually and in an aural sense.   With the recent January launch of their very own recording label, Tafelmusik Media, the Toronto-based ensemble (touted by Gramophone as one of the world’s top baroque orchestras) place themselves at the very cutting edge of what they describe as the “classical online recording revolution” of the 21st century.   The new label’s first releases hit shelves on March 27, 2012, and include the debut of The Galileo Project.  It is Tafelmusik’s ace card and playing it now assures their new label gets off to an impressive running start.

The Galileo Project was conceived in 2007 and brought  to fruition in 2009 with its premiere performance at The Banff Centre in Alberta.  Since that time, Tafelmusik has been touring the world with performances before awe-struck audiences.  Now, for the first time ever, listening audiences everywhere can experience this one-of-a-kind production through DVD and an accompanying studio-produced CD of the gorgeous baroque music featured in the concert.  The DVD/CD set was co-produced by Tafelmusik and The Banff Centre and is being distributed by Naxos USA through the Americas and by Naxos Global Logistics in the rest of the world, as well as through most digital retail outlets.

The Galileo Project is the brainstorm of Tafelmusik’s double-bass player, Alison Mackay.  The seed was planted when Tafelmusik received an email from Dr. John Percy, professor of astronomy at the University of Toronto, suggesting that the orchestra consider doing a concert presentation in celebration of 2009’s International Year of Astronomy.  He hoped to inspire Mackay to create another of her imaginative concert programs similar to some of her past creations (like the multicultural The Four Seasons: A Cycle of the Sun, among others).  It worked.  Mackay was immediately intrigued by the idea of melding baroque music and astronomy together.  With the enthusiastic support of director Jeanne Lamon, Tafelmusik approached The Banff Centre to see if the orchestra could use its facilities to develop the project, and the rest is history.

What makes The Galileo Project so revolutionary, unique and satisfying is its over-all concept and, more importantly, how that concept is presented.  Inspired by the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s telescope (which incidentally also coincides with the earliest beginning of the baroque style of music and with the birth of opera), it includes music from various composers, each of whom share a commonality with Galileo, mostly by virtue of being contemporaries who lived in the same time period or by virtue of the compositions themselves sharing a similar ‘solar system’ theme.  That in itself, performed by such an acclaimed ensemble as Tafelmusik, is enough to make it a worthy project.  But as the DVD demonstrates, Tafelmusik ups the ante considerably by performing the music in front of a backdrop of a unique 12-foot round projection screen (the shape of which is reminiscent of a telescope lens) displaying stunning photographs of the universe from the Hubble telescope, and NASA and Canadian astronomers.   The stage floor features a circular design of blue-and-gold illustrated with signs of the zodiac.

As if that were not enough, the performance is enriched with interspersed narrations by the talented Canadian actor, Shaun Smyth, who reads portions of texts from period diaries, letters and poetry, including selections from Shakespeare, Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses,’ a 1629 letter written by Galileo to his brother-in-law in which he recounts reporting his new telescope to the Venetian Senate, his controversial (at the time) book ‘The Starry Messenger’ (which ushered in a new era of scientific discovery but also set him on a collision course with the Catholic Church), and the Inquisition’s sentence of Galileo.  Smyth even performs an anonymous 18th century drinking song about astronomers.

But wait – there’s more.  Throughout all of this, Tafelmusik’s musicians perform these baroque beauties entirely by memory – a daunting feat which has never before been accomplished by an entire orchestra, but became necessary due to the dimmed lights needed for projection screen visibility thereby making the reading of sheet music all but impossible.  What might have seemed a liability actually proved to be a huge asset to the entire performance, as it freed the individual players to participate in some very effective choreography.  At times they move about the stage in circular formations that resemble the orbiting of the planets around the sun; at other times they break out into almost dance-like movements as they play.  The result of all this freedom is uninhibited musicians projecting their whole beings into the music and springing it to life in ways that would not have been  possible with a stationary orchestra tied to their music stands.  Instead of reading sheet music, they make eye contact with one another as they exchange musical passages in a playful bantering back and forth that makes it obvious they are thoroughly enjoying themselves.  Such “conversations” are wonderfully entertaining and provide convincing evidence that music is indeed a language in itself.  One occasion of such playful interaction can be seen in the video below in which two ciacconas are featured (one composed by Monteverdi, and one by Merula).  Watch the two musicians enter the stage about halfway through the video when the music transitions from one ciaccona to the next.

The accompanying CD is beautiful enough to stand on its own, with excellent sound production that makes the strings absolutely sing through the speakers in crisp and clear notes against full and lush basso continuo harmonies of  double-bass, violoncello, bassoon and harpsichord, with some gorgeous contributions from oboes, lute and guitar adding their own dazzle to the mix.  The musical score is divided into sections of astronomical themes:

The Harmony of the Spheres (I) – The score begins and ends with music related to the ancient concept that the planets and stars are separated from one another by intervals corresponding to the harmonic lengths of strings, and thus their movement through space produces a musical sound coined “harmony of the spheres.”  This section opens with a rousing and impressive performance of the first two movements of Antonio Vivaldi’s concerto for two violins in A major from L’Estro Armonico (which loosely translates ‘harmonic inspiration’).  It’s been recorded numerous times, but Tafelmusik infuses new fire and gusto into this old workhorse that really gets the blood pumping.  It is followed by excerpts from Jean-Baptiste Lully’s opera, Phaeton, performed with all the pomp and fanfare one expects from a Lully composition.  The libretto is based on Ovid’s story of the son of Apollo, the Greek sun-god. Ovid personifies the minutes, hours, days and seasons as denizens of the palace of the sun.  King Louis XIV, who built his own “sun palace” in Versailles and elaborately decorated it with depictions of Greek gods throughout, employed Lully as resident musician. The influence of such grandiose cosmic surroundings on Lully can be seen in his choice of subject for this particular opera and by the titles of some of its movements with references to the four seasons.

Music From the Time of Galileo – Includes works from Claudio Monteverdi, Tarquinio Merula, and Biagio Marini, the most important composers in Galileo’s world.  One of the highlights is a lively excerpt of history’s first full opera, Monteverdi’s Orfeo, which debuted in Venice in 1709, the same year that Galileo’s telescope was introduced to the world.  Years later Galileo would arrange for Monteverdi to purchase a Cremonese violin for his nephew, Alberto Galilei.   A beautiful, lamenting lute piece composed by Michaelangelo Galilei, Galileo’s brother (and Alberto’s father), immediately follows a somber narrative of the Inquisition’s sentence of Galileo.  Galileo came from a family of professional lutenists, and he himself played the lute, and it is easy to imagine that Galileo might have occasionally sought solace by strumming his own lute during lonely hours of house arrest.

Music From the Time of Isaac Newton – Isaac Newton, England’s most important astronomer, was born within a year of Galileo’s death and was buried in Westminster Abbey near the tomb of the English composer, Henry Purcell.  Tafelmusik includes here the Rondeau movement from Henry Purcell’s Abdelazer, one of the most enjoyable selections in the program.

The Dresden Festival of the Planets - Includes excerpts from the music of Georg Philipp Telemann, George Frideric Handel, Jan Dismas Zelenka, and Silvius Leopold Weiss, all of whom performed at Dresden’s “Festival of the Planets” in 1719, a month-long extravagant celebration that commemorated a royal wedding with numerous operas, balls, outdoor events and special concerts in honor of each of the known planets.  As such, the tracklist includes some works representative of the planets – Jean-Philippe Rameau’s “Entrée de Jupiter,” “Entrée de Venus,” and “Entrée de Mercure”and Lully’s “Air for the Followers of Saturn.”  A lute concerto in C major by Weiss is a rare treat reconstructed by Tafelmusik’s lute player, Lucas Harris.  All that survives of the original manuscript is the solo lute part, but the title page confirms that the lute was accompanied by two violins, viola and violoncello.  Lucas has composed the missing parts, and the result is gorgeous.

The Harmony of the Spheres (II) – The program concludes with a return to the “harmony of the spheres” theme in a grand finale of  music from none other than the great J.S. Bach.  It is in Bach that all the different forms and styles of the baroque come together and are brought to perfection.  I once read baroque music described in this way – “music which is melodious yet so constructed as to reflect the perfect order of the universe.”  The baroque composer and theorist Johann Fux voiced similar thoughts when he said, “a composition meets the demands of good taste if it aims at the sublime, but moves in a natural ordered way.”  Heavenly bodies, too, move through space in their own orderly pattern.  The 17th century mathematician-astronomer Johannes Kepler combined these two thoughts when he used the formulas from his laws of planetary motion to derive musical intervals and short melodies associated with each planet.  Tafelmusic beautifully weaves these short tunes of Kepler’s into Bach’s “How Brightly Shines the Morning Star,” as they eloquently bring the program near its conclusion. It is a stunning piece, perhaps surpassed only by the spirited sinfonia which follows, an adaptation of the opening movement of Bach’s cantata of the same name.

There simply could not be a more fitting way to conclude this extraordinary release  than by melding the beauty of the baroque with the beauty of the stars in the music of Bach, the perfect conduit to convey the message of the mission of the International Year of Astronomy – to celebrate the wonders of the cosmos and the achievements of the human spirit.

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Aleady, Tafelmusik and The Banff Centre have collaborated in a second co-production, House of Dreams, which premiered in Banff last month and is currently embarking on concert tours throughout the world, with the U.S. tour scheduled to begin in March 2013.  House of Dreams is “a magical journey to the meeting places of baroque art and music – five European homes (which still exist) where works by Bach, Handel, Vivaldi and Marais were played against a backdrop of exquisite paintings by Vermeer, Canaletto and Watteau.”  As in The Galileo Project, the orchestra has memorized all the music and the concert is enlivened with choreography, narration, and stunning projected images of paintings on a 12×16 foot screen bordered by a baroque frame.   An interview with Alison Mackay about the project can be viewed on Tafelmusik Media’s Watch & Listen feature (where film and audio excerpts of The Galileo Project can also be seen).  Hopefully, House of Dreams will also be captured on a DVD/CD set in the not-too-distant future. Until then, check out other upcoming releases on Tafelmusik Media’s website.  There’s a whole baroque learning center full of great resources to be found there, too, and there’s even a free and fun online baroque adventure webgame for kids (and for grownups who are still kids at heart!).


Kezzie Baker lives in the heartland of America and if there’s one thing she likes better than listening to all kinds of music, it’s talking about it. There are just way too many truly great artists that never receive the notoriety they deserve. She tries to do what she can to change that by spreading the word around to anybody who will listen.
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