Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra presents The Galileo Project: Music of the Spheres, part of the Early Music Vancouver series, Friday, Nov. 23, 8 p.m. at Kay Meek Centre in West Vancouver. Tickets: $42/ $37, visit kaymeekcentre.com.
WHEN the members of Tafelmusik turn their eyes upwards to scan the night sky, they're doing more than stargazing; rather, they're hoping to catch a glimpse of their baroque orchestra's namesake.
The Toronto, Ont.-based ensemble was honoured by the International Astronomical Union by having an asteroid, 197856 Tafelmusik, named after them in light of their efforts to bring history alive in The Galileo Project: Music of the Spheres.
"That was very exciting," says Alison Mackay, who conceived, scripted and programmed the work.
"It's brought us in contact with a whole world of wonderful astronomers that we otherwise might not have had a chance to have contact with," she adds.
The Galileo Project, a co-production with The Banff Centre, was created to mark the 400th anniversary of Galileo Galilei's development and use of the astronomical telescope and celebrates his and fellow classic astronomers' ingenuity through a combination of musical performance, science, storytelling and high-definition cosmic imagery.
The orchestra is currently touring The Galileo Project in Western Canada from now until Dec. 1 with a stop in West Vancouver tonight at Kay Meek Centre at 8 p.m. The orchestra will then perform the production in Victoria, Duncan, Nanaimo, Saskatoon, Regina and Calgary.
Mackay, who's based in Toronto, has been a member of
Tafelmusik for more than 30 years.
"It's a real experience of chamber music," she says. "It's a smaller core of musicians, there are 17 of us. Most of the people in the orchestra have been in it a long time. There hasn't been any turnover in a number of years. You're able really to build on a shared understanding of the music and the style."
What differentiates Tafelmusik from some other orchestras are the instruments used by players. Wherever possible, members play historical or period instruments, or those set up in the baroque style with gut strings and slightly different fittings. They also use different bows than those used by modern string players, all in an effort to make the kind of sound they believe the composers whose music they're performing would have had in mind.
Mackay, for instance, plays two early forms of double bass, including the violone.
"We're always going back in time a little bit, searching for a vibrant sense of style to make the music sound as if people were hearing it for the first time, the way they would have been in Bach or in Handel's time," she says.
Mackay has created a number of diverse works for Tafelmusik, including The Four Seasons: A Cycle of the Sun and House of Dreams, which will tour the United States this spring. She's currently working on a project relating to Mozart's Vienna.
"We have been experimenting over the last dozen years or so with different formats of concerts, putting our music into more of a multicultural context or into a slightly different historical context, perhaps by having a narrator and a scripted aspect to the program," she says.
Prior to her creation of The Galileo Project, Mackay had been interested in experimenting with lighting design and a theatrical set. To accommodate those aspects, she wondered about the possibility of having the orchestra memorize their parts, uncommon in orchestral performances, with the exception of soloists.
"Because we've played together for so long, I thought that playing without music and without music stands might really bump us up to a new level," she says.
She decided to finally test the innovative approach in the lead up to the International Year of Astronomy, marked in 2009 by the United Nations, after Tafelmusik was asked to come on board for a Canadian celebration related to the 400th anniversary of Galileo's discovery. Two of the members on the Canadian event committee approached Tafelmusik wondering about the prospect of a related cultural performance.
"They approached us to see if I might be interested in creating a program that somehow combined our music with the world in which Galileo and Newton and Kepler made their discoveries," says Mackay.
She agreed and the orchestra had the opportunity to workshop The Galileo Project at The Banff Centre. The work premiered in 2009 and has since been performed internationally, including in the United States, China, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand and Australia.
The show features a full program of music by Bach, Handel, Monteverdi, Vivaldi and other baroque composers, performed by the Tafelmusik orchestra.
"The music is chosen to illustrate the world from which astronomers came," says Mackay. The most direct contact between music and astronomy lies with Galileo himself, who was a very accomplished lute player. His father composed lute music and his nephews and brothers were professional lutenists in a number of European cities.
"One of my colleagues has said that it's kind of an accident that Galileo himself didn't become a musician," says Mackay.
At one point in the program, the orchestra's lutenist, Lucas Harris, takes on the persona of Galileo and plays music written by the astronomer's younger brother.
In addition, narration is provided, drawn from letters and writings from the books of Galileo, and other materials and events from the 17th and 18th centuries linked to astronomy, throughout the performance 80 astronomical images are projected.
Mackay is extremely pleased with the success of The Galileo Project, both in the eyes of astronomers, audiences and her fellow musicians.
"For the musicians, it places our music in a new and fresh context and allows us to turn a fresh new lens on it," she says. "The fact that we were able to learn it from memory was just artistically very, very bonding and allowed us to interact with each other with a new excitement."
Prior to tonight's performance at Kay Meek Centre, Mackay and Tafelmusik's music director, Jeanne Lamon, will participate in a pre-show discussion with Early Music Vancouver's associate artistic director Mathew White at 7: 15 p.m. in the main theatre.