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Tafelmusik blends baroque music, astronomy in ‘Galileo Project’

BY KYLE MACMILLAN | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA

Classical music and astronomy might not seem to have much to do with each other today, but in the lively baroque world of the 17th and 18th centuries, the two fields overlapped and interrelated in sometimes surprising ways.

Tafelmusik, an internationally known original-instrument orchestra based in Toronto, highlights these links in “The Galileo Project: Music of the Spheres,” an innovative program that brings together music, words and images.

After performing this popular offering some 60 times in cities around the world since its debut in 2009, lutenist Lucas Harris and the 17-member ensemble will bring it to Chicago for the first time Friday as part of the University of Chicago Presents series.

“The main thing about it is that it is really gorgeous music — some of our favorite repertoire,” said Alison Mackay, a bassist with the group since 1979.

The origins of the project date to an email that John Percy, professor of astronomy at the University of Toronto, sent to Tafelmusik in the spring of 2007 on behalf of the organizers of the Canadian celebration of the International Year of Astronomy.

Tafelmusik, ‘The Galileo Project: Music of the Spheres’

When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 7

Where: University of Chicago, Performance Hall, Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th

Tickets: $35

Info: (773) 702-2787; chicagopresents.uchicago.edu

He asked if the ensemble would be interested in conceiving a concert to mark the 400th anniversary in 2009 of Galileo’s first recorded astronomical observations with a telescope, a crucial breakthrough in humankind’s efforts to see and understand the cosmos.

Tafelmusik accepted the challenge and turned to Mackay to oversee the project. She has developed several other nontraditional programs for the ensemble, including “The Four Seasons: A Cycle of the Sun” and more recently, “House of Dreams.”

Alison Mackay | PHOTO BY SIAN RICHARDS PHOTOGRAPHY

Alison Mackay | SIAN RICHARDS PHOTOGRAPHY

As interest in conventional classical concerts has waned and selfies and texting have helped make society more visually oriented than ever, orchestras are increasingly searching for new ways to connect with audiences via cross-disciplinary, multimedia undertakings that place the music in a social and historical setting.

“In these concerts,” Mackay said, “we are performing music that is very much at the heart of our repertoire, but it gives it an amazing new freshness for the performers and for the audience. It not only enriches the intellectual experience of the music, but it also puts it in a very new emotional context.”

Art and science were more closely related in general during the Baroque era than in today’s hyper-specialized world, and there were specific intersections between the two fields that are especially relevant to this concert. “Of course, there aren’t millions of automatic connections, but there are some very authentic ones,” Mackay said.

In researching this program, she discovered, for example, that Galileo, a lutenist himself, was part of a highly musical family. His father, Vincenzo Galilei, was an important composer and lutenist, and a lute solo written by his brother, Michelangelo, is included on the first half.

There is also music by composers such as George Frideric Handel, Georg Philipp Telemann and Jan Dismas Zelenka, who took part in a monthlong “Festival of the Planets” in Dresden, Germany, in 1719. Operas, balls and concerts were held in honor of the planets known at the time: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

"The Galileo Project" by Tafelmusik | PHOTO BY COOPER SMITH

“The Galileo Project” by Tafelmusik | PHOTO BY COOPER SMITH

Also included are excerpts from Jean-Baptiste Lully’s little-known 1683 opera, “Phaëton,” which is based on the mythological story of the son of the sun god, Apollo. It was composed while Halley’s Comet was in the night sky.

Mackay wrote the script for the concert, which is performed by an actor, and she worked with production designer Glenn Davidson on the visuals. Images from astronomical photographer Alan Dyer and other sources are projected onto a circular screen 12 feet in diameter.

Unlike standard concerts in which the players are seated in front of music stands, the musicians perform the entire program by memory and move during the concert, sometimes even venturing into the audience.

By stepping back several centuries to honor Galileo and his accomplishments, Tafelmusik has made a big leap forward in relating to 21st century audiences.

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.