Celebrating Galileo

Q&A with Cynthia Siebert

An image from the Hubble Space Telescope is projected behind a musician from the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra.


In 2009, the Friends of Chamber Music brought the renowned Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra to town for a new kind of performance: The Galileo Project. The show, based on the life of Galileo and his invention of the telescope, was a hybrid of a single-actor play with period-appropriate music as well as visuals, ranging from Galileo’s time to what the telescope has enabled today. (Think dramatic photos from the Hubble Space Telescope.) It was, as longtime Friends president and founder Cynthia Siebert puts it, one of “very few multimedia, multicultural events in classical music world—and it was very successful.” So successful, in fact, that five years later, Siebert has chosen to reprise it for the Friends’ series this year on November 9. We caught up with Siebert to see what the uninitiated among us can expect.

Spaces: How did the Galileo Project come about?

Cynthia Siebert: The genesis of it is quite charming. There was a gentleman, a scientist, who lives in Toronto, which is where Tafelmusik is from, who had been a longtime fan because they specialize in baroque music. So he approached them in 2007 and said, “You know in 2009 there’ll be thousands of celebrations all over the world for Galileo and the 400th anniversary of his inventing the telescope.” That discovery had huge ramifications for the whole world—from military use, to be able to see advancing armies and ships long before they ever could before, to Newton taking it a step further later in England. And this program, even though it has its roots in Galileo, spends a fair amount of time on Isaac Newton because he added significantly to the quality of the telescope.

So this scientist comes to Tafelmusik and says, “I love your organization. You do music exactly from this period. We should figure out something particularly unique for this anniversary.” They got a grant from the [Canadian] federal government for the entire orchestra plus an array of scientists and multimedia artists to gather for a week at Banff. This became a giant think-tank project for a week. They came away with an outline to write a play. They’d use a single actor (there are no costumes), and they’d incorporate a minimal number of sets, the most prominent being a giant telescope. Because it’s a circle, all the visuals that are flashed on this large screen are as if you’re viewing everything through a telescope. The visuals include 400-year-old manuscripts. By the way, many of the originals are in the [UMKC] Linda Hall Library. It’s amazing. We have of one of the greatest collections of early manuscripts and one of the largest collections in the world of Galileo manuscripts. That’s why we partnered with them the first time.

S: Will you partner with them this time?

CS: Bill Ashworth [guest speaker for the preconcert lecture] and Bruce Bradley [of the Linda Hall Library] have composed an exhibit with placards that will explain why these particular prints were chosen for this program and the invention of the telescope.

S: What else is unusual about the program?

CS: The musicians have to play this program from memory because they proceed down the aisles and walk up on the stage. There’s probably never before been a demand made of a chamber orchestra to play from memory. It’s a really, really, really hard thing to do.

For tickets or to learn more about the program, go to chambermusic.org.