Tafelmusik’s Tales of Two Cities at Disney Hall

I was a little worried when I saw the extensive program notes for Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra’s concert Sunday night at Disney Hall, called “Tales of Two Cities: The Leipzig-Damascus Coffee House.”

It sounded complicated: “The cities of Leipzig and Damascus both lay at the crossroads of ancient trading routes. They were both important centers of scholarship and the dissemination of ideas…” Did I need to study? Would there be a test afterwards? Would I have to place these cities on a map, or maybe write an essay on their economic or historical importance?

Then the lights dimmed and I realized that I didn’t need to worry — just listen, watch and enjoy. They were going to invite me into “the coffeehouse” and bring me along for the ride. And what a unique and enjoyable one!

If you are unfamiliar with the group, members of the Toronto-based Tafelmusik play on Baroque-era instruments — no chinrests and shoulder rests, with Baroque bows. Founded in 1979, Tafelmusik recently named violinist Elisa Citterio as its new director, replacing longtime director Jeanne Lamon, who retired.

Standing for most of the performance and playing entirely by memory, the 16 members of Tafelmusik were joined by the stunning Trio Arabica (with members from the Al Qahwa Ensemble); friendly narrator Alon Nashman; and a screen overhead that helped guide the audience through the various stories of the night. The show was written by the group’s double bass player, Alison Mackay.
The show began with violinists filing into the audience, playing as they faced other performers on stage, one holding aloft a large percussion instruments that, based on its appearance, I immediately deemed a “moon drum” — it’s actually a large Arabic tambourine called a “daf”.

The music, mostly from the 18th century, alternated between European Baroque music and traditional Arabic music. The action centered around the kinds of music, coffee, literature and art that one would find in the coffee houses of the time in Damascus, Syria and Leipzig, Germany, both cities where so many cultures have come together.
As the music weaved in an out, so did the players, walking around the stage as they played and emerging in front when their playing was featured.

Four Tafelmusik violinists created a gorgeous blending of sound during their performance of the Largo from Telemann’s Concerto for Four Violins in G major. They switched violinists to play the next movement, the Vivace, which had a wonderful spirit of joy and communication. This seemed a common practice for this ensemble: to share the featured and supporting roles equally among members of the group.

The viola stole the show for at least a little while, as the orchestra gathered in a semi-circle around violist Patrick Jordan, who performed the Presto from Telemann’s well-loved Concerto for Viola in G major, taking it at a breathless-fast pace and eliciting a spontaneous burst of applause from the audience.

Visually speaking, the slide show included a series of pretty porcelain coffee cups, decorated on the inside for the weak, see-through coffee of Leipzig and decorated on the outside for the strong, opaque coffee of Damascus! They also guided us along with maps to locate these cities, paintings of musicians and dancers, literary figures and more.

New director Citterio was featured in a performance of the Allegro from Torelli’s Concerto for Violin in E minor, Op. 8, No. 9. She was helping to illustrate the story of Pisendel, a shabbily-dressed young violinist who nonetheless won over the musicians of Leipzig by playing a piece written by his teacher, Torelli – a virtuosic cascade of notes. Citterio played it with energy and precision.

An amusing side-story featured excerpts from Telemann’s “Burlesque de Don Quixote,” as Cervantes’ classic would be the type of literature to be read aloud in one of these coffee houses. As members of Tafelmusik played music depicting the gallop of Rosinante and other characters, our narrator showed full commitment with a dramatic flip onto the floor, as he described the delusional Quixote, fighting the windmills that he took to be monsters and being flipped by the sail of a windmill.

Members of Trio Arabica showed their virtuosity throughout, but especially in a series of solos and duets that featured them in the second half of the show. Demetri Petsalakis displayed the range of the oud, a plucked string instrument. Vocalist Maryem Tollar sang a florid and melismatic solo; and then Naghmeh Farahmand did a mesmerizing improvisation on that “moon drum,” the seemingly simple daf, which is both struck and shaken to produce an astonishing range of effects. All were met with enthusiastic applause.

The show ended with Bach, more traditional Arabic music, and then Telemann. The show closed with some thoughts on war, displacement and shared culture, noting that in the present day, many Syrians displaced by war are making their homes in Germany, hoping to return one day when their homeland is at peace. (March

Tafelmusik’s Tales of Two Cities joins East and West over coffee

Toronto audiences have become so accustomed to the spectacular and varied multimedia extravaganzas cooked up by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra’s resident storyteller, Alison Mackay, that we sometimes forget how unique they are. Here are members of a great baroque orchestra, playing at the peak of their form for two hours, having memorized the entire concert, prowling around the stage in seemingly carefree abandon, supported by text, images and a clever storyline. It’s no wonder so many of Mackay’s creations have been performed for audiences around the world – there’s really nothing like them.

Mackay’s latest effort opened on Thursday – Tales of Two Cities: The Leipzig-Damascus Coffee House – and it may be the most profound of them all. But it’s rough in spots, with a stubborn, not always predictable shape. In the end, that became its strength, because the topic it chose to delineate – the shifting, complex, tense relationship between East and West, is not easy or smooth. In the end, we witnessed a phenomenon that was unexpected and powerful – the joining of two peoples through the universal need for human communication, and the power of musical utterance. A power that transcends culture, almost transcends history.

Mackay uses as her cultural glue, the introduction of coffee into both the East and West in the 17th and 18th centuries, so that the coffee house eventually becomes a centre of Arabic culture in Damascus, but also a centre of Western culture in Leipzig, Germany. To represent the West, we had the Tafelmusik orchestra; for the East, Trio Arabica, vocalist Maryem Tollar, percussionist Naghmeh Farahmand and oud player Demetri Petsalakis.

The concert got off to an interestingly ecumenical start, with Farahmand drumming out a rhythm that eventually became the basic pulse of a Telemann overture, but often the Western and Eastern sounds passed each other in musical space without ever touching. Subtly, we were reminded that cultures are often stubborn partners, with clearly defined parameters and content.

However, as if by some Mackay magic (she’s done this on more than one occasion), that changed in the second half of the concert. Even though it seemed Damascus had been temporarily forgotten as Tafelmusik alone took the stage at the beginning of Part 2, it was the power of story and storytelling that provided the cultural enmeshing. Narrator Alon Nashman skillfully told two stories in the second half – first by reading from Don Quixote, with music by Telemann as accompaniment, and then telling a tale of Scheherazade from Arabian Nights. This was accompanied by the most stunning musical moment of the evening, the superb Tollar singing, a capella, Afdihi in Hafidhal Hawa Ow Diy’a, a solo that transcended cultural barriers, a passionate, soulful, heart-rending bit of intense emotion that reached every person in Koerner Hall, Eastern, Western, whatever.

Tollar’s solo was only one of several phenomenally inspired bits of music-making on display all evening – another example of correspondence between cultures. We humans like to display, we like to achieve perfection in music-making, and it really doesn’t matter who we are in this regard or where we’re from. So we were treated to a passionate and wild Aisslinn Nosky just killing a movement from a Telemann Violin Concerto. We revelled in the rhythmic acuity and abandon of an improvised solo by Farahmand. Tafelmusik’s wind trio – oboists John Abberger, Marco Cera and bassoonist Dominic Teresi were crazily virtuosic in a Handel Trio Sonata.

So, in the end, when narrator Nashman reminded us that at this very moment, people from Damascus were bringing their culture with them to Leipzig, as refugees from a brutal conflict, we were able to place the fact into a more complex, serious and realistic context. As we’ve seen, the integration of two different cultures is not easy, as much as we would like it to be. However, because of Mackay and Tafelmusik and Trio Arabica, we were given some hope on Thursday night that there may be more that unites us than divides us, if we are willing to search for it.

The Globe & Mail (