Tafelmusik – festive Baroque splendour from Canada

THE GALILEO PROJECT – Music of the Spheres

(New Zealand International Festival of the Arts 2012)

Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra / Jeanne Lamon (Music Director)

Shaun Smyth (narrator) / Alison McKay (Concept, Script and Programme)

Wellington Town Hall

Friday, 16th March 2012

It was all a bit too much at first – I confess I found the mega-hype of the Festival booklet’s blurb for “The Galileo Project” concert distinctly off-putting, creating an impression in my mind of an experience involving as many extra-musical “distractions” as one could possibly throw at an audience. We were promised “Dazzling images…a fusion of science and culture…beautiful classical music and poetic narration…” (and much more along those lines). The program – including an Allegro  from a concerto by Handel, a Rondeau from a larger work by Purcell, plus various instrumental exerpts from operas by Lully, Rameau and Monteverdi – seemed diverting enough, to be sure, but was it the kind of fare one could seriously get one’s teeth into?  It looked like an assemblage of baroque-ish bits and pieces designed to augment some new-age “flash-over-substance” entertainment.

Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong – I should have put my trust in The New York Times, whose review of Canadian baroque orchestra Tafelmusik’s concert was also quoted in the Festival booklet – “An event steeped in intellect and imagination”. For the evening had all the ingredients of a truly memorable experience for the concertgoer, presenting an amalgam of music, words and images that contrived to entertain, stimulate, educate, challenge and satisfy all at once. Even crusty old holier-than-thou musical purists like myself were completely won over. In fact I can’t recall attending a concert at the end of which there seemed more smiling, delighted faces and animated voices thronging the corridors and exitways of the hall.

It took only a few moments of the concert’s opening for us to discover why Tafelmusik was described by Gramophone Magazine as “one of the world’s top baroque orchestras”. Beginning with an Allegro movement for two violins from one of Vivaldi’s L’Estro Armonico concerti, the group delivered the music with incredibly engaging buoyancy, the two soloists’ melodic lines conversing, countering, echoing, mirroring and contrasting with one another in a delightfully ambivalent exchange, part-confrontational, part-complementary. In the time it took to draw breath, the concerto’s slow movement stimulated a change of lighting, and a regrouping of musicians, so that a different soloist was playing, the music’s rapt stillness a complete contrast to the previous bristling energies.

As if giving tongue to the rapture of the sounds a speaker at one point interposed with those famous lines of Shakespeare’s from “The Merchant of Venice” – Lorenzo’s “How sweet the moonlight sleeps along this bank…”. Then, at the words “Come, ho! and wake Diana with a hymn!…” several wind players joined the strings and began Lully’s Overture “Phaeton”. Generally, the orchestra arranged its string-and wind-players in a circle around its continuo players, two ‘cellos, double-bass, guitar and harpsichord, and as the different works required changes of soloist, the musicians revolved accordingly – at times they revolved during the music, and in places in appropriate pieces did dance-steps as they played. All of this was done with such ease and elegance as to make one hold one’s breath, in mute appreciation of it all.

Besides Shakespeare, we were given, in tandem with appropriate pieces of music, a story from mythology (How Apollo’s son Phaeton met his death), readings from letters of Galileo concerning his telescope, parts of the Inquisition’s pronouncements concerning Galileo’s heresy, reminiscences of the great Sir Isaac Newton, from his manservant Humphrey Newton (we were told “no relation”), readings of Kepler’s theories concerning the harmonies of the spheres, and accounts of historical happenings such as the 1719 Dresden Festival of the Planets with its attendant opera, balls, events and concerts in honour of each of the known planets.

All of these things the speaker/narrator Shaun Smyth delivered with finely-tuned focus and judgement, allowing us by turns to feel the gravitas of things such as Galileo’s condemnation and imprisonment by the Church authorities, the wry humour in descriptions of both Galileo and Sir Isaac Newton by their contemporaries, and the ceremonial splendor of festival events honouring the various planets. It was unfortunate that, at the quietest and most intimately-scaled part of the presentation (the episode of Galileo under house-arrest, playing his lute) an audience-member had to be removed from the auditorium for medical reasons; but to everybody’s credit the emergency was registered, and things on the stage were held in suspension while the operation was completed, then continued as before.

Making flesh of the word throughout all of this was the music – the musicians, every demi-semiquaver played from memory, seemed, by dint of their own intense involvement, able to connect us with sounds of worlds we knew from history books but could now feel as direct sensations. The exhilaration of the opening Vivaldi concerto for two violins, the magical antiphonal effects of Lully’s Chaconne, accompanying the story of Phaeton, between the soloists and the ripieno (the larger group, playing so quietly), the remarkable rhythmic interchanges between two solo ‘cellos and the accompanying orchestra in Monteverdi’s music, following Galileo’s description of his observation of Jupiter’s nearby “stars” – all of these pieces enlivened the spoken commentaries and activated the different worlds of each of the personalities we were presented with.

It may have been during the latter stages of one of Monteverdi’s pieces, or while the band was playing Tarquinio Merula’s Ciaconna (difficult to know where one exactly was, musically, at times during this wonderful farrago!) that the musicians actually danced a kind of courtly dance while playing (with an occasional touch of “silly walk” to debunk any pomposity that might have arisen). And during the “Homage to the Planets” sequences, the orchestra spilled over and down into the auditorium aisles, summonsed from the stage, as it were, by a group which had detached itself during the opening “Entrance of Jupiter” from Rameau’s “Tragedie en Musique” Hippolyte et Aricie, their “offstage” tones sounding like music from Fairyland. How wonderful to then have the whole auditorium of the Town Hall sounding and resounding with music in honour of heavenly bodies such as Venus, Mercury and Saturn!

This was all done with such style and unselfconsciousness as to create a kind of organic flow, the music, movement and narrative dovetailed to perfection. These things were capped off by a series of images projected onto a circular (how other?) screen at the back of the stage, the sequences complementing, but never unduly impinging upon the music. It strikes me as appropriate that Tafelmusik has been given the honour, by the International Astronomical Union, of having an asteroid named after the orchestra – a true “Music of the Spheres” gesture, and one which I’m sure everybody who attended the Wellington concert would, as they did the performers themselves at the evening’s conclusion, heartily applaud.











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