Exquisite Tafelmusik playing upstaged by unheavenly sensory overload

Sat Nov 08, 2014 at 1:51 pm

By Tim Sawyier

Tafelmusic performed its "Galileo Project" Friday night at the Logan Center.
Tafelmusik performed its “Galileo Project” Friday night at the Logan Center.

Tafelmusik returned to Hyde Park Friday night for the first time in 14 years, the event part of the University of Chicago Presents series. The Toronto-based Baroque chamber orchestra offered a program entitled “The Galileo Project: Music of the Spheres,” a brainchild of Tafelmusik bassist Alison Mackay, which was intended to explore the intersection between music and astronomy/astrology around the time of the Italian patriarch of modern science. The evening’s concert, or more accurately, its elaborate AV presentation, amounted to a Trimalchian smorgasbord for the eyes and ears, which achieved that aim only to a limited extent.

Since its founding in 1979, Tafelmusik has performed in over 350 cities around the world, released over 80 recordings, even created its own record label—and the caliber of playing at the David and Reva Logan Center last night demonstrated that their stature is justified. Performing the entire 75 minutes of music from memory, the 16-member consort demonstrated effortless ensemble playing and an ability to shift between different Baroque styles with enviable alacrity.

Listening to some other historically minded ensembles, at times one can feel beaten over the head with “period practice”—conspicuous lack of vibrato and affectedly gestural phrasing—which can ultimately detract and distract from the music itself. Tafelmusik’s playing however—while certainly informed by 16th- and 17th-century performance practices— was always natural and never didactic.

Unfortunately, it was not enough for Tafelmusik to offer tasteful, intelligent renderings of Baroque composers both famous (Monteverdi, Lully, Vivaldi, Bach) and obscure (Tarquinio Merula, Biagio Marini, and Michelangelo Galilei). Hanging behind the ensemble was a large circular screen on which were projected various images ranging from portraits of Galileo to modern images taken from the Hubble telescope. Over seventy such images scrolled through during the presentation, so the audience was forced to look at something new nearly every minute.

Tafelmusik also employed the services of Canadian actor Shaun Smyth who throughout the show delivered soliloquies excerpted from multifarious sources ranging from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, to Galileo’s letters, to recollections of the astronomer, to writings of other scientists of the era (Newton, Kepler), and beyond.

Along with these non-musical elements, the musicians entered and exited through the audience, assumed various configurations around the hall, and too much of the presentation seemed chaotic rather than enlightening. For example, the penultimate work was a Bach Sinfonia after his BWV 1, but with the “scales” Kepler derived from planetary motion (a process left unexplained) woven, or rather inserted, into the chorale texture.

The evening’s highlights were all musical ones, when the audience was given a respite from the onslaught of images. Tafelmusik lutenist Lucas Harris delivered a poignant Toccata for solo lute by Galileo’s brother Michelangelo. Introduced by a threatening letter to Galileo from the powers that be of the Inquisition and performed with on blacked out stage with only a spotlight on him, Harris captured what can be desolate loneliness of remarkable thinkers with pathetic poignancy. The second half opened with one of the group’s oboists singing the hauntingly beautiful “See, even night herself is here” from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen over supple, pulsating strings.

Ultimately, these moving musical moments were subsumed under the distracting theatrics, which proved too great for even musicians of Tafelmusik’s taste, elegance, and ability to overcome.

The University of Chicago Presents series continues 7:30 p.m. November 14 at the Logan Center with a jazz program featuring the Alfredo Rodríguez Trio. chicagopresents.uchicago.edu

Posted in Performances

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