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Galileo at his telescope

Galileo at his telescope

On being subjected to long stretches of tuning at some early music concerts I’m reminded of the old joke about going to a fight and having a hockey game break out. Even if the tuning doesn’t actually take longer than the musical works on the program, its repeated eruption throws things badly out of balance: before the music has even begun, the listener’s excited anticipation deflates. Between the pieces the flow of the concert is continuously diverted because of all those finicky viols with their profusion of strings, and even worse the lute in the unwieldy state to which it had evolved by the eighteenth century. One contemporary wag quipped that having such an instrument was more expensive than keeping a horse, and that if a lutenist lived to sixty years of age, forty of those had been spent tuning the beast.

In a modern symphony concert the tuning proceeds quickly and has a strictly policed ritual form that hearkens back to the militaristic origins of the orchestra as an institution. The second-in-command – the concertmaster – orders an A from the oboe and then directs the various platoons to fall in line with the pitch. The present-day orchestra has modernized musical weaponry that can be quickly calibrated: the mustering of the troops takes about a minute. This demonstration of uniform sonic discipline then quickly recedes into respectful silence for the entry of the generalissimo – the conductor – who leads his army into battle against the massed armies of one great power or another – Brahms, Beethoven, or some new contender.

Such discipline is often absent among the disorganized irregulars of many an early music battalion. Their dutiful fussings are necessary perhaps, but often dispiriting.

In the eighteenth century tuning was typically done to a prelude improvised by the organist or harpsichordist. He was charged with slowly traversing harmonies that made for useful references for the adjustments of the stringed instruments. The American musical traveler and collector Lowell Mason heard precisely this approach in the nineteenth century in Bach’s old church of St. Thomas in Leipzig. Mason reported that the result was the most out-of-tune band he’d ever heard.

Nowadays there are apps for iPhones and kindred gizmos that make off-stage tuning possible for strings and winds. But some recalcitrants cleave to their twentieth-century ways rather than go back to the eighteenth or join the twenty-first.

Imagine never having to listen to protracted tuning at a concert – neither before nor during. Such a concert would have two robust halves of music separated by an intermission that felt like it had been earned rather than just being more dead time to added to that already killed by the tuning.

And while we’re bent on focusing our concert on content, uplift, and edification, let’s dispense with the clutter of applause and move things along directly between the pieces with an enlivening script presented by a fabulous speaker/actor who brings the story of the concert to life as no set of stuffy program notes could ever do. And since we’re cleansing the stage of distraction, let’s sweep aside the scores and the music stands. Disappear the conductor, too.

Impossible, you say, to ask every one of the dozens members of an ensemble to memorize their own parts in a program that approaches two hours in duration. And to expect all these disparate minds to remain on track without traffic-cop direction given by a conductor will lead to too many collisions to count. How can all these folks remain on the same page when there is no page in the first place?

But banish these objections for a moment further and picture these unencumbered players interacting with one another musically and physically, sometimes moving about the stage in a kind of dance and assuming visually striking formations. The seated soldiers of music rise up to become ever-changing tableaux vivants.

What this revolutionary approach opens up is the possibility of a concert as theatre in which the grace and vibrancy of bodies at music become integral to the performance.

Such a vision of performed music, be it is classed as early or modern, is no mere pipedream. One of the world’s great baroque orchestras, the Toronto-based Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra has brought this ideal to eloquent and unforgettable reality with its “Galileo Project” conceived for the International Year of Astronomy in 2009, marking four hundred years since Galileo Galilei made his first astronomical observations and Johannes Kepler published the Astronomia nova.

Developed by Tafelmusik during a residency at the Banff Centre, the Galileo Project was premiered there in January of 2009. Like a heavenly body migrating through the sky, the Galileo Project crossed Lake Ontario from Toronto to Ithaca, New York five years later to light up the Saturday night firmament in Cornell University’s Bailey Hall, a century-old neo-classical pile whose cavernous interior sometimes seems as if it could accommodate a couple of solar systems within its vaults. In spite of the far-from-ideal venue for the intimacies of early music, Tafelmusik filled the place up with the energy of its music and the appeal of the story it told with the aid of movement and image. The musicians traced their own orbits and cycles on stage beneath a large circular image projected behind them whose circumference was ornamented like Galileo’s telescope. It was as if we were looking through his lens at the extraordinary things from across the universe, from here on earth to the most distant stars; from Kepler’s printed words and music about the songs of the planets, to photographs of stunning terrestrial landscapes and fabulous nebulae and comets that we now can see at levels of resolution and magnification never dreamt of by Galileo himself. The well-researched and elegant script was written by the long-time Tafelmusik double bassist Allison MacKay, who has frequently collaborated on what she calls “cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary projects for the orchestra.”

Dressed all in black but with touches of color brightened by the colored hair of two of the female violinists, the players moved silently onto the stage to welcoming applause and started right in – no tuning! – with a Vivaldi concerto whose virtuosic allegro and seductive largo astonished and seduced, two things the night sky is also very good at doing. While this sensuous music of Venice introduced the Harmony of the Spheres in the context of the Galileo Project, it evokes for me the water and tenuous earth of its birthplace, Still, there is also something weightless and celestial in this eighteenth-century top-of the-charts stuff when done by Tafelmusik and its long-time director, Jeanne Lamon, recently retired but for the time-being still at her post.

From Vivaldi’s Venice we moved to France by way of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and comets and skyscapes seen through the Galilean lens to witness Phaeton’s disastrous crash of his father Apollo’s sun chariot. This suite of pieces came from Jean-Baptiste Lully’s 1683 Phaëton, the magnificent tragédie en musique about the ill-fated teenage joyrider. Tafelmusik literally moved from the overweening confidence of the pompous overture to the inexorably elegant and elegiac Chaconne in which twelve of the musicians themselves formed a circle and, like the signs of the zodiac, rotated through their choreographed yearly cycles. These motions allowed for the players to engage in seemingly spontaneous – but in fact carefully staged – dialogues of artistry and emotion in configurations at or near center stage that momentarily escaped the gravitational hold of the group.

From France we vaulted back a century to the musical world of Galileo, himself an amateur lutenist who came from a family of musicians. Galileo first demonstrated his telescope in 1609 in Venice, the same city that would later foster – and occasionally thwart – Vivaldi’s prolific genius. The transition was achieved effortlessly through the recitation of Galileo’s own writings by the narrator, actor Shaun Smyth. An Albertan born in Scotland, Smyth brought with him from the old country a mastery of dialects of the British Islands that he deployed occasionally – and only when called for – with humor, flare, and taste.

Smyth and the musicians traced the chronologically retrograde path from Vivaldi to Lully to Monteverdi Smyth by way of McKay’s insightful and well-researched script. Now with Galileo we heard the streaking comet of Monteverdi’s concerted madrigal Zefiro torna set by Tafelmusik for its two cellists, Christian Mahler and Allen Wheat, singing through their instruments like cosmic angels. Unleashed from the planets Plato imagined them sitting, they ran wild through earthly meadows and woodlands. A deft modulation lead to another treatment of same bassline by a fellow composer of Venetian stamp, Tarquinio Merula. We then retreated the shadows of a solo lute Toccata by Galileo’s younger brother, Michelangelo, the piece played with captivating melancholy and finesse by one of the orchestra’s most potent forces, lutenist/guitarist Lucas Harris. The plaintive voice of his instrument, designed to be heard in renaissance chambers, drew the hundreds-strong Bailey Hall audience into its inner feelings with a pull as strong and ineffable as gravity. It was a piece Galileo would have heard and indeed likely played himself, especially during the years of his long house arrest. These offerings were framed by pieces from the most famous work of Galileo’s time and place, Monteverdi’s Orfeo, which premiered two years before the astronomer first pointed his telescope at the sky.

After a fact-checking peek at the night sky from the plaza in front of the concert hall, I returned from intermission to my seat just as the orchestra marched back on stage for a Purcellian prelude to a re-imagining of the festival of planets organized in Dresden for the Saxon-French royal wedding of 1719: with Rameau, Handel, Telemann and Zelenka we toured Jupiter, Venus, and Mercury.

After Smyth’s hilarious rendition of an eighteenth-century English drinking song that lauds and ridicules the paradigm-shifting discoveries of Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton, we heard J. S. Bach’s flights of fancy around Venus in the sinfonia to his cantata, How Brightly Shines the Morning Star (BWV 1). The chorale melody around which the other contrapuntal parts orbit resounded from one of the orchestra’s wonderful oboists placed in the hall’s distant balcony – yet another instance of the group’s creative use of the venue as a tool for mapping sound and space.

The evening closed with a rocketing rendition of another of Bach’s beloved cantata sinfonias, the opener to BWV 29. This piece had once been repurposed by Bach from a solo violin work to an organ concerto. It was again transformed by Tafelmusik into a violin concerto during which yet another of the group’s many star fiddle-players had a chance to shine, concluding a concert/performance that among its many marvels was an astounding feat of group memorization demonstrating the limitless reach of music in and as motion that, like the Keplerian cosmos, was never out of tune.

David YearsleyCounterPunch