“Tales of Two Cities” explores the coffee houses of Damascus and Leipzig
By Peter Alexander March 1 at 6:15 p.m.
It takes a person with a very creative imagination to turn the history of coffee into a concert combining Baroque and middle-eastern music.
“Tales of Two Cities.” Photo by Bruce Zinger
The Toronto-based Baroque orchestra Tafelmusik has such a person in bass player Alison Mackay, and the multi-media, cross-cultural program she created, “Tales of Two Cities: the Leipzig-Damascus Coffee House,” comes to Boulder Monday (7:30 p.m. March 4 in Macky Auditorium). The program includes music by Bach and Telemann, both of whom led coffee-house ensembles in Leipzig, as well as Handel, Torelli and a few other composers of the Baroque era; and performances by Trio Arabica, performing music from Syria.
The concert is performed inside a set inspired by a room from 18th-century Damascus. The performance also features projections of images, maps and film, and a narrator who will present Mackay’s script To facilitate the movement of the players onstage, the entire program is performed from memory.
Alison Mackay on the set for “Tales of Two Cities.” Photo by Bruce Zinger
This is the fourth multi-media program that Mackay has created for Tafelmusik. Each of them has included projections and stage sets, and the music has all been memorized. “That’s a tall order,” Mackay says, in what may be a significant understatement.
“We all learn to memorize pieces when we’re young, but memorizing the inner part of a Handel concerto grosso is a very tall order. It’s an orchestra full of passionate people, so it was a large conversation [the first time], but in the end people decided to take it on and everyone has been thrilled at the way it’s worked out.”
While the multi-media productions get a lot of attention, most of what Tafelmusik does is traditional concerts. “It’s not as if we think that the audience needs the bells and whistles, but from time to time we do put our repertoire in a historical or a cultural context,” Mackay says. “It’s exciting for us to be able to explore the music in a different way.”
“Tales of Two Cities” grew from research Mackay was doing for another multi-media program featuring the music of J.S. Bach. In the course of doing research in Leipzig, she discovered that there was a large collection of manuscripts from Damascus at the University of Leipzig.
“I read an article about an amazing private collection of manuscripts, copied in the 17th and 18th centuries, that belonged to a family in Damascus,” Mackay says. ”There was a department of Arabic studies at the University of Leipzig. The university bought this collection, and within that collection [were] of dozens of leather-bound performer’s books that had belonged to a storyteller in the coffee houses in Syria.”
As Mackay looked into this fascinating bit of historical evidence, she started to discover how much Leipzig and Damascus had in common. Both were important cities at crossroads of commercial routes, and became centers for international trade fairs. Both were also centers of scholarship and learning.
And they had thriving coffee-house cultures at the same time.
Zimmermann’s Coffee House. Detail from an engraving by Johann Georg Schreiber, 1732.
It was well known that both Telemann and J.S. Bach had conducted Leipzig’s Collegium Musicum, a club for students musicians that performed weekly concerts at Zimmermann’s Coffeehouse. This happened at exactly the time that coffee houses became centers of social and intellectual activity across Europe.
The first coffee houses opened around 1700, at the same time the development of public street lighting made it possible for respectable people to be out after dark. At that time “there starts to be this rise of places where you can go for entertainment,” Mackay explains. “It goes hand in hand with political conversation and performances of music.”
The unexpected parallels between the two cities inspired Mackay to put together the program for “Tales of Two Cities.” For the Leipzig end, she used music that could be tied to the city in some way. “Not that is much known about specific pieces that were played in Zimmerman’s Cafe, but I deliberately picked the kind of small orchestral and chamber music that would have been played by Bach’s Collegium Musicum,” Mackay says.
Telemann and J.S. Bach were shoe-ins for the program, and Mackay looked for other connections as well. “It’s known that Handel visited Telemann in Leipzig when they were both young law students interested in music, so I’ve included music by Handel,” she says.
“There’s an anecdote written by someone who was in a coffee-house ensemble in Leipzig, about the violinist (Johann Georg) Pisendel coming to play. It’s a very humorous account, and it says that he played a concerto by his teacher, Torelli. So I’ve included a movement from a concerto by Torelli.”
Other music—for example, a piece by the Venetian composer Monteverdi—illustrates the history of coffee as it moved from Syria and Turkey through Venice and then to Paris London, and Leipzig.
Trio Arabica with Tafelmusik. Photo by Bruce Zinger
For the music from Damascus, Mackay invited the Trio Arabica to join with Tafelmusik. In the concert program notes, she has written that “The public coffee houses of Syria were venues for musicians who performed settings of strophic poems called muwashshahs, instrumental doulabs and improvised taqsims—forms of classical Arabic music that are the specialty of Trio Arabica.”
After engaging the trio, she says, “we would meet together. I had a few ideas of places where the music could intersect, and so we spent a long time thinking about suitable pieces. There are several places where a piece of theirs is juxtaposed with pieces of ours, or a couple of places in the program where we play together.“
The one thing Mackay wants the audience to notice is that everyone is playing from memory. “It’s terrifying,” she admits. “Sometimes when you’ve done all that work, people don’t notice.
“Musicians always notice!”
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Tales of Two Cities: The Leipzig-Damascus Coffee House
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, Elisa Citterio, music director
With Trio Arabica and Alon Nashman, narrator
Conceived, programmed and scripted by Alison Mackay
Music by Telemann, J.S. Bach, Handel, Monteverdi, Torelli, Lully, Omar Al-Batsh Mohamed Al-Qasabji, and Sheikh Abul Ela Mohamed
7:30 p.m. Monday, March 4