Ensemble Galilei journeys through America

Courtesy PhotoMore than music: Ensemble Galilei brings “First Person: Seeing America

Ensemble Galilei isn’t your average chamber music group.

The musicians — playing fiddle, viola, recorder, oboe, percussion, Celtic harp and viola da gamba — take listeners on visual as well as aural journeys, in adventurous multimedia programs featuring large-screen projections, historical and anthropological themes, classic imagery and high-profile narrators.

The group’s current production, coming to the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco on Friday, is called “First Person: Seeing America.” It includes photography from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, poetry by Langston Hughes, Carson McCullers, Damon Runyan, John Muir and Frederick Douglass, and a variety of music — pieces by Bach, traditional tunes from Scotland and Ireland, and new compositions.

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Actors Bill Pullman and Lily Knight narrate and read poetry in the expansive program, which covers Native American and 19th century immigrant experiences, the Civil War, the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.

The show begins with a Navajo prayer and continues with “Highlander’s Farewell.” Knight’s performance includes a reading of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

The musical travelogue includes Irish, Swedish, American colonial and Western songs. A highlight is James Agee’s “Knoxville: Summer 1915.”

Classic photography by Edward Stieglitz, Walker Evans, Edward Curtis, Paul Strand, WeeGee and Thomas Eakins is part of the mix.

The ensemble — Hanneke Cassel on fiddle, Ryan McKasson on fiddle and viola, Kathryn Montoya on recorders, whistle and oboe, Jackie Moran on percussion, Sue Richards on Celtic harp and Carolyn Anderson Surrick on viola da gamba — has been called “a constant source of musical delights.”

Established in 1990, Ensemble Galilei takes its name not from astronomer Galileo Galilei, but his son, Vincenzo Galilei (1520-91), a composer, lutenist, music theorist and inventor of recitative in opera.

Previous Ensemble Galilei productions have taken audiences into space through the lens of the Hubble Space Telescope (“A Universe of Dreams”) and on journeys of exploration and discovery with pictures from the National Geographic Image Collection (“First Person: Stories from the Edge of the World”).

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