SC Baroque Festival, Feb 6

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By Roger Emanuels

THE 2016 SEASON of the Santa Cruz Baroque Festival lifted off its launch pad Saturday evening at the UCSC Music Recital Hall. “Perpetual Motion: Galileo and his Revolutions” was a three-part performance of music, narration and video projections that illustrate the life and times of Galileo Galilei, the eminent astronomer and mathematician of the Italian Renaissance. The program was performed by Galileo’s Daughters, a duo of Sarah Pillow, soprano, and Mary Anne Ballard, viola da gamba, with guests Ronn McFarlane, lute, Marc Wagnon, video artist, and Frank Drake, narrator.

Galileo’s Daughters, as moniker for the duo and as a theme for this program, can be traced to the 1999 biography by the same title (though using the singular Galileo’s Daughter) by Dava Sobel, an American author well-known for translating dense science into a vernacular accessible to the general public. The story unfolds primarily through the letters of Galileo’s daughter Virginia and letters between Galileo and other scientists of the time. These letters form the content of the narration, spoken with clarity of articulation by Frank Drake, Professor Emeritus of UCSC and a noted expert in astronomy who, among other projects, spearheaded SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

On stage the three musicians were seated at the (audience) left side, the narrator on the right, with a large screen in the center, almost engulfing the entire visual space. The engaging video projection consisted of animations and photography of scenes in outer space alternating with pastel watercolor-like video of earthly landscapes. It moved continuously and slowly, allowing the viewer to focus on the music and narration simultaneously.

The music played and sung, from the 15th to 16th centuries, represented mostly Italian composers such as Francesco da Milano, Cavalli, Caccini, Frescobaldi and Monteverdi, among others. Vocal music at that time was declamatory in style rather than the long bel canto melodies of the 19th century. With only a lute and viola da gamba accompaniment, the music was quiet and peaceful, never reaching a volume level above soft. The soprano voice added depth and variety to the texture. (Sarah Pillow is a noted jazz singer as well as an expert in early music.) Her voice has a light sound, which is attractive and flexible. She conveyed dramatic moments with expressive character in the otherwise limited range of the melody. Unfortunately, as the dramatic moments required a more forceful delivery, the pitch would lose focus. Superb performances for lute solo and for lute and viola da gamba alternated with the vocal works.

Concluding with the only non-Italian composer, Henry Purcell’s An Evening Hymn proclaimed Hallelujah! to a fading image on the screen, providing a glorious ending to the evening. The 75-minute program was presented without pause, with applause at the conclusion only. The Music Recital Hall appeared full to capacity. Congratulations to the Baroque Festival for opening their 43rd season with this appealing event.