Looking, listening to the stars with Neal Conan, Ensemble Galilei

Monday, November 16, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST
NPR radio host Neal Conan narrates poems and short stories to images from the Hubble telescope during the Universe of Dreams show Saturday evening, Nov. 14, 2009, in Jesse Auditorium at MU.

COLUMBIA –On Saturday night, talk show host Neal Conan expressed relief to be taking a break from his day job.

“I believe it was Kennedy who said D.C. is a combination of Southern efficiency and Northern charm,” Conan said. “Many of you already know that a day outside of D.C. is a good one.”


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Conan read poetry, creation stories and a galaxy-themed song as the group Ensemble Galilei performed its “Universe of Dreams” for the University Concert Series. The show included Celtic, classical and originally composed music and featured images taken from the Hubble telescope.

Ensemble Galilei showcased an eclectic collection of instruments, including the viola da gamba, played by group founder Carolyn Surrick, and the Celtic harp, played by founding member Sue Richards. The performance also featured a mandolin-like instrument called a bouzouki, historic woodwinds, bongo drums and a fiddle. 

Images of stars and nebulae flashed onto the screen, and Conan expressed the group’s appreciation for NASA technology. 

“Long live the Hubble!” Conan said. 

As the concert slowly came to its end, he mentioned that Ensemble Galilei had a planned encore. 

“I don’t want to break any news or anything,” Conan said. “But we’ve rehearsed an encore, and we’re going to play it.” 

After the performance, Conan and the musicians talked to remaining audience members in a question- and-answer style. 

Gambist and founding member Surrick joked with the crowd after being asked whether the group traveled the country in vintage Volkswagen vans. 

“Yes, and they all say Grateful Dead on the backs,” Surrick said. 

The musicians also answered slightly more serious questions on their literary selections, compositions and performance styles. 

“We only select poems and stories that every member feels passionate about,” Surrick said. “If someone says, ‘This piece isn't doing it for me,’ we don’t use it. It’s a ridiculously democratic process.” 

Asked about the group’s lack of sheet music, fiddler Hanneke Cassel mentioned Ensemble Galilei’s improvisational playing.

“We have some freedom to improvise a bit during the show,” Cassel said. “And sometimes, even when we don’t mean to improvise, we still do.” 

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