Paul Hopwood - The Australian
THE Galileo Project, presented by the Canadian baroque chamber orchestra Tafelmusik, was developed by the orchestra's double bass player Alison MacKay to mark the year of astronomy in 2009, the 400th anniversary of the year in which the great Italian astronomer first turned his telescope to the night sky.
In a welcome departure from the traditions of classical music concerts, a wide selection from the music of the 17th and 18th centuries is woven into a story of planets, stars and astronomers presented by genial narrator Shaun Smyth.
The entertaining script is drawn largely from contemporary sources, including extracts from Galileo's diaries and letters by Isaac Newton's assistant.
Throughout the evening beautiful images of the planets, stellar nebulae and distant galaxies are projected from a luminous circular screen behind the performers.
Astoundingly, the entire concert was performed from memory. Unfettered by scores and music stands, like a band of troubadours the 17 musicians were free to move around the stage, even to dance.
Far from being a gimmick, in each case the staging reflected tangible aspects of the music, bringing certain solo voices to the fore and allowing others to occupy the background.
Momentary duets became conversations between players. A chaconne featuring two intertwined solo violins became first a duel then a game of chase. At times the violins left the stage and stood among the audience.
From a musical point of view this was a performance of the highest quality. Perhaps because the music was memorised, the ensemble was exceptionally tight and rhythmically accurate. It is a rare delight to hear an orchestra of period instruments - strings and continuo supplemented by oboes, bassoon, and baroque guitar/lute - played with such subtlety, mastery and commitment.
Music and astronomy were perhaps at their closest near the concert's end, the awesome beauty of J.S. Bach's sinfonia, based on the Lutheran choral tune `How brightly shines the morning star', perfectly matching the awesome majesty of images of immense clouds of interstellar gas and the birth and death of stars.
Through subtle drama, physical gesture and sheer musicianship, Tafelmusik capture the energy, emotion and joyful spirit of the baroque. These are concerts not to be missed.