Tafelmusik explores coffee house culture through music and stories of the 18th century

Tafelmusik and Trio Arabica in Tales of Two Cities. Photo: Bruce Zinger

Let’s travel back in time to Leipzig, Germany in the year 173o. It’s a Friday night and everyone who is anyone will be headed to Zimmerman’s Coffee House.

We can drink some coffee, sip some hot chocolate, or try the local beer. There’s some live music. You might even recognize the guy at the harpsichord. If you don’t know his face, you probably have heard of Johann Sebastian Bach. He’s there every Friday from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. There’s no cover charge.

Imagine being there for a moment and you have a sense of half of the Tafelmusik concert called Tales of Two Cities: The Leipzig-Damascus Coffee House. It will be performed at the National Arts Centre on Tuesday. 

Hundreds of miles away coffee houses were flourishing in one of the great cities of the Arab world Damascus, Syria. Music was being played there too.

Tuesday’s concert will feature music from both cities played by Tafelmusik and the Trio Arabica — Maryem Tollar, voice and qanun; Demetri Petsalakis, oud and Naghmeh Farahmand, percussion.

Alison Mackay. Photo: Bruce Zinger

The idea for this evening comes from Tafelmusik’s double bassist Alison Mackay, who has become known for these investigations of music history.

This is a poignant time to be talking about the meeting of cultures in the wake of the mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

The Tafelmusik show premiered in 2016 in part as a way to bridge the cultural divide, she said.

“It’s actually designed to lead to a story that occupies that last quarter of the concert which is a story about inclusion and the welcoming of refugees.”

The show will feature separate performances by both ensembles along with narration and stories by the Canadian actor Alon Nashman and projected images which are historically connected to the music that is playing, Mackay said.

“In our (Tafelmusik) world it is well known that Bach directed a coffee house ensemble in his home town of Leipzig. It came to my attention, when I was designing a previous concert about Bach and his material world — the people who made his paper and his instruments; how his concerts were financed and that kind of thing.

“It came to my attention at that time that there was an amazing collection of manuscripts in the University of Leipzig library that were from 17th and 18th century Damascus that were originally part of a collection in a private home in Damascus.”

The collection contained poetry, religious manuscripts, scientific and astronomical works that had come to Leipzig, Mackay said. Also in that remarkable collection was a group of little leather performance books known to have been the property of a well-known storyteller in Damascus in the 18th century.

“When I started being interested in Damascus, I started to see parallels between the two cities. Both were centres of scholarship. Coffee house culture was very important in both.”

There were differences too.

“In this time Damascus had a real tradition of inclusion of other religions. It was of course majority Muslim, but the city had ancient Christian and Jewish communities that were allowed freedom of worship and residence.

“In Leipzig, the economy was dependent on Jewish merchants who came to trade fairs three times a year, but Jews weren’t allowed within the city gates at other times of the year,” Mackay said.

Mackay has done two other Bach programs. This one developed while the orchestra was in residence with the Bach Festival in Leipzig.

“I had time to meet people at the university” some of who helped develop this program.

She has had the backing of her colleagues and the organization.

“I’m lucky the orchestra has 17 people who are willing to be experimented with and who are willing to memorize music. The administration has been incredible. If someone has a compelling idea, they will move mountains to make it work.”

Tales of Two Cities has just come back from a U.S. tour. The last concert was in Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles and there were a lot of Syrians in the audience, she said, “dancing in their seats.”

These are her last few weeks with the orchestra.

“I have been in it for 40 years now and it’s time for young folks to get a chance. The orchestra has chosen a new bass player from London, England.

“I turned 66 this past September. I was planning to leave at 65 but our new music director Elisa Citterio asked me to stay and overlap with her. I was thrilled to do this last tour, it’s been a very nice send off.”

In the concert, Tafelmusik and Trio Arabica play on their own “so each plays authentically from heart of its repertoire.”

And the two cultures come together musically.

“A thread that runs through concert is the degree to which newcomers can enrich your culture. It is very far from threatening it.”

In Leipzig’s coffee shops, the music would be by Bach, Telemann and Handel. The musicians would play the Brandenburg Concertos, harpsichord and violin concertos, chamber music, trio sonatas, solo harpsichord. 

Visiting soloists coming through town would sit in and occasionally they would have singers, mackay said.

“It would have been an amazing evening of music.”

The concert Tuesday will feature a lot of music by Telemann, she said. He lived in Leipzig before Bach and he was composing and directing an ensemble at university.

Mackay started playing bass as an adult. She was a piano major in university. Then she played the and started playing instruments from the viol da gamba family. She picked up a violone that’s what she started playing in Tafelmusik.

Mackay might be leaving the orchestra but she is not stopping.

“I am designing another concert for the Tafelmusik main stage series next season. It’s about the importance of indigo dye in the culture of India and 17th and 18th century Europe.”

Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra presents Tales of Two Cities
Southam Hall
March 26 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.