Gregory G. H. Rihn (milwaukeesfs) wrote,
Gregory G. H. Rihn

Early Music Now: Galileo's Daughters

We opened the new performance season with the first of a number of concerts we have tickets for with Early Music Now, at the Zelazo Center on the UWM Campus on Saturday, September 26th. 

"Galileo's Daughter's" represents an unusual concept, which is a concert combining a lecture/narration and "illustrated" with astronomical pictures and videos. The musicians are Sarah Pillow, vocals; Mary Anne Ballard, viola da gamba; and "guest" Ronn McFarlane on lute.  The spoken word portion was
done by Dava Sobel, who is a former New York Times science reporter and the author of Galileo's Daughter, a book based on surviving letters to Galileo Galilei from his eldest child.

To me, the most interesting parts of the narration were the early sections, which dealt with the work of Galileo's father, Vincenzo Galilei, who was in his day a famous lutenist and music theorist.
Although Vincenzo taught Galileo the lute and other instruments, Vincenzo encouraged Galileo to study medicine instead of mathematics, which was a poorly paid specialty. (Vincenzo was very aware of this,
since, at that time, music theory was considered a branch of mathematics). However, Galileo had inherited his father's stubborn streak and followed his own interests with the historical results we know. 

Besides being a notable lutenist, teacher, composer, and transcriber of music, Vincenzo was a member of the Florentine Camerata, a group of humanists, musicians, poets and intellectuals who gathered to discuss
and guide trends in the arts, especially music and drama.  One of the major works of this group was the project to 'reconstruct' the dramatic style of the ancient Greek plays, which it was believed had been chanted to musical accompaniment. Composers in the group abandoned the polyphonic style then in vogue, and instead wrote songs for single voices, which could be more intelligible to the listener, more
emotionally powerful, and more ornamented. Applied to a verse drama, this became "opera." 

Vincenzo also worked intensively to improve the lute, experimenting extensively with string lengths and materials in order to determine the best sound. This methodical and hands-on approach may have set the
pattern for Galileo's later physical experiments. It also put Vincenzo into conflict with his old teacher, who tried to suppress his work. Vincenzo eventually prevailed, again setting a pattern of resistance to
authority that his son would follow. Vincenzo's experiments lead to the design of a new lute with graduated spacing of the frets, which has since become the model for all fretted instruments.

The latter part of the readings was less interesting. I didn't get the significance of a portion of a letter from daughter Virginia about sending him candied citron and pears, except to establish that Galileo
did, in fact, have a daughter. Galileo's own writing was represented  nly in the final piece, a rather insipid prayer. Some of the astronomical visuals were interesting, notably pictures of Jupiter's
south pole, but all in all I found it preferable just to listen with my eyes closed in the dark room.

If there was a problem with the musical portion of the program, it was not that it was uneven, but that it was TOO even. It seemed that nearly every piece had a similar, slow, tempo, and I found myself wishing that
they would have worked in a couple more lively pieces.

That said, Sarah Pillow is a fine singer, who has an excellent grasp of the Renaissance and early Baroque styles and intonations. Her delivery of the songs could not be faulted.  Ballard and McFarlane are likewise
masters of their instruments and played beautifully whether accompanying Pillow or in purely instrumental pieces. 

After an intermission, McFarlane and Pillow took the stage for a bit of music not on the program. McFarlane played two pieces for the lute of his own composition, on based on an old tune "Man of Art," and one
inspired by an underwater cave. Then he accompanied Pillow on a couple of jazz standards (one of her other specialties). These were all excellent, but there were only four pieces in this 'second half' and I
could have asked for more. Most disappointing was that Ballard did not appear, as I would have liked to hear more of her instrument. Insistent applause by the audience did not elicit an encore.

All in all, a curious performance of more academic than artistic interest. While glad to have heard it, if given a "do-over" we might well not have chosen this concert.
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