Tafelmusik Brings Otherworldly Sound to Cornell

The Galileo Project: Music of the Spheres
Bailey Hall, Cornell University
November 15, 2014

English physicist Norman Robert Campbell once wrote, “Science would not be what it is if there had not been a Galileo, a Newton or a Lavoisier, any more than music would be what it is if Bach, Beethoven and Wagner had never lived.” This statement has rarely been so obvious as it was on Saturday night, when Toronto-based Tafelmusik proved distinction as one of the world’s finest Baroque ensembles with its presentation of The Galileo Project. The orchestra’s double-bass player, Alison Mackay, conceived the program when she was invited to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Galileo Galilei’s astronomical telescope. The result could hardly have been more apt, for the Italian astronomer’s love of physics was known to extend almost as deeply into the heart of music as to the heavens that set it beating. Father Vincenzo, in fact, passed on to his son a love for the lute, an instrument Galileo continued to play throughout his final years, blind though he was and under house arrest for heresy by order of the Inquisition.

Tafelmusik’s performance—last of the fall Cornell Concert Series—was a master class in pastiche, shuffling evocative readings (courtesy of actor Shaun Smyth) of Shakespeare, Ovid, Kepler and Galileo himself, among others, into a contemporaneous playlist, all while images from the Hubble and tasteful computer-generated sequences were being projected onto a circle suspended at stage rear. Even more delightful was the fact that Tafelmusik played without scores. Originally a logistical necessity brought on by the low lighting required for the visuals, this dynamic liberated the 17-member orchestra—save for its bench-bound harpsichordist—in remarkably creative ways. Choreographic variations grew organically out of sonic ones and found the musicians sometimes among the audience, playing in the wings of the hall, or ambulating about the stage in veritable planetary orbits. These movements further translated into conversational banter, which on occasion threw the two cellists into intense dialogues or, as in the case of the Vivaldi concerto that opened the program, goaded the violin soloists with syllogistic zeal. The musical infrastructure was thus pillared by its most popular culls, by which was served a delectable assortment of incidental music by Lully, Monteverdi, Purcell and Rameau, all leading to the glorious sinfonia from J. S. Bach’s 29th cantata.

Central to the program’s conceptual integrity, however, was something quantifiable by no mere intersection of sound and science. It was, for lack of a more effective connotation, the timeless “spirit” of invention, observation and revolution that made every note sing. In this respect, some of the darkest moments of the concert were also its most compelling, as when a narrative description about the death of Galileo’s beloved daughter gave way to a toccata for solo lute composed by his younger brother Michelangelo. The intimacy of this downtime said more about celestial mysteries than the numbers employed to explain them.

Tafelmusik’s slogan may be “World-renowned, Future-bound,” but The Galileo Project showcased an unbreakable bondage to the past in kind. The end effect continues to reverberate in this reviewer’s mind, which nevertheless labors to return the favor in these constellations of words and hopes that, somewhere in the universe, Mr. Galilei was listening.

(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun here.)

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