Cultures United by Coffee

The stage at intermission awaits the return of the performers.

The all is one.

When I made that statement a few weeks ago, I was referring to how being open to how developing one portion of my creative process has unexpectedly opened up other doors, and fed back on itself.  But a concert I saw last night showed just how much an understanding of context–and breaking the mold of what we have accepted that a classical music concert should be–can open up new vistas of the world of the past and present.

Toronto is lucky to be home to Tafelmusik, one of the world’s preeminent Baroque music ensembles. I have been participating in their sing-along Messiah for years, and have attended a few of their other concerts from time to time. Most are of the familiar type–a selection of music, usually from the Baroque or Classical period, played on period instruments.  Their musicianship and research is impeccable, resulting in a style widely praised for both its passion and authenticity.  But they also push boundaries in some of their concerts with multi-media presentations around particular themes or historical concepts.  Until last night, I hadn’t had the opportunity to attend one.

A friend of mine is a subscriber offered me a last-minute ticket the day before, and I enthusiastically accepted without knowing what was on the program (I really can’t imagine anything Tafelmusik might do that I wouldn’t enjoy). To my delight, what I got to see was Tales of Two Cities: The Leipzing-Damascus Coffeehouse, one of Tafelmusik’s boundary-breaking ventures tying Baroque music to the world of the late 17th and early 18th century.  Alison Mackay (who plays the double bass with the orchestra) is the mastermind behind these programs, which combine an incredible amount of research into music history, art and culture to literally bring some aspect of the past to vivid life through musical and spoken storytelling.

Last night’s concert focused on the parallels between the cities of Leipzig and Damascus as the crossroads of culture and scholarship for the European and Middle Eastern worlds respectively, with a focus on the institution of the coffeehouse as it existed in both places.  To do this, guest performers Trio Arabica were brought in to present works to suggest what might have been heard in Damascus during the period we call the Baroque in Europe. Tafelmusik focused on primarily on works by Telemann, Handel, and Bach, all of whom lived in Leipzig and performed in the city’s coffee houses.  The stage itself was designed with a gorgeous eight-pointed star motif recalling similar motifs in Syrian architecture, with the harpsichord placed at the centre. Behind the performers, the stage was simply decorated with two hangings taken from the decoration of an actual Damascene room blending both Islamic and Baroque influence, as well as a large screen, where, within a framework of elements from the same room, a window was opened into these intersecting worlds through the visual arts.

The concert opened with a Telemann overture where the majority of the orchestra began playing in the hall and processed in.  The encounter of cultures was signaled by percussionist Naghmeh Farahmand, who accompanied the orchestra on a large frame drum with metal jingles that she carried as she played. Once all players were on stage, a greeting was provided in English by narrator Alon Nashman and in Arabic by vocalist and musician Maryem Tollar (who was wearing a spectacular green gown with a wide geometric pattern in shades of gold and silver around the neckline). Through a variety of Arabic songs and Western music from Monteverdi and Lully, the narrator told the history of coffee, which was first cultivated and drank in Yemen by Sufi mystics seeking to stay awake during their devotions.  We also learned about how the two cities–Leipzig and Damascus–both lay at the intersection of trade routes, and both served as centres for arts and culture.  Interestingly enough, Leipzig was a centre for the study of Arabic in the West, and the Middle Eastern world and that city were engaged in a lively exchange of not just trade goods, but also learning.  Music was then used to introduce the lively coffee house culture in each city, and to note its interesting similarities (even if the coffee itself was vastly different – thin and weak in Leipzig, strong and dark in Damascus).  We met some of the Leipzig musicians for whom the coffee house became a focal point for gathering and playing, including one who had originally come there to study law–Telemann–and his acquaintance from the nearby town of Hälle – Händel.  Later on, we met Bach through his music, who turned the ensemble of musicians who had typically met at a coffee house into the Colleigum Musicum.  While the names of the composers in Damascus were not known, a parallel story of coffee house culture was related, along with traditional Arabic songs.

In the second half of the concert, the focus was on the storytelling traditions of both Europe and Syria.  The European tradition was represented by Telemann’s music for Don Quixote, and the Arabic by the stories told by Scheherezde in the Arabian Nights, specifically one tale of a migrant down on his luck who forges a letter of recommendation to a prince–from his bitter rival.  It was skillfully told in a way typical of the “cliffhanger” type of tales seen in the Arabian Nights–which was a traditional storytelling style described by Western visitors. A fascinating illustration of this tradition–and the connection between the two cities–was an example of an Arabic coffeehouse storyteller’s notebook, brought back to Leipzig in the early 19th century as part of a collection of manuscripts, by a Prussian official who had studied Arabic there before becoming Prussian Consul in Damascus.  Both Leipzig and nearby Hälle became known in the early 18th century as centres for study of the Middle East and its culture and languages, including ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic. The concert concluded with visuals showing how today, Leipzig and Damascus still have strong ties, augmented by recent immigrants to the area who have helped contribute to local culture.

Tafelmusik, as expected, played beautifully.  Particularly striking was the work of Elisa Citterio in the first movement of Torelli’s E minor violin concerto (op. 8, no. 9),  violist Patrick Jordan in the first movement of Telemann’s famous Viola Concerto, and oboeists John Abberger and Marco Cera and bassoonist Dominic Teresi in a movement from Handel’s Trio Sonata (op. 2, no. 5).  But it was the Trio Arabica that recieved perhaps the loudest ovations–particularly vocalist Maryem Tollar’s gorgeously controlled and expressive performance of Afdihi in Hafidhal Hawa Ow Diya’a and percussionist Naghmeh Farahmand’s percussion solo, performed exclusively on the frame drum she carried in the opening sequence.  This instrument was played with the fingers while the drum was held in both hands, and occasionally shaken.  Watching Farahmand’s fingers caressing and striking the drum much in the way the fingers of a pianist strike and caress the keyboard was absolutely hypnotizing, and the variety of sounds she produced from a single drum was astounding.  It was the best drum solo I’d seen since a Rush concert, and with far fewer drums.  The concert closed with a rousing finale mixing a movement from a Telemann concerto with a traditional Arabic song sung by Tollar, who invited the audience to join in by clapping, and thus become part of the performance themselves.

But while all the music was glorious, what made this concert special was that I left it not just happy to have heard beautiful music, but with my head full of new knowledge–images, stories, and sounds evoking two cultures at a particular point in time.  I felt as if a window to the past had opened up, allowing me to better understand the music in its full historical context–which, for me, takes pleasure to another level altogether.  I wanted to continue learning about it, and I read this morning with great enthusiasm the program notes, which added more information to what was presented last night.

I was also left wanting more in the same vein.  How amazing would it be to see this approach taken with music from other periods and other composers! Indeed, Tafelmusik has done this before–and, I am sure, will do it again–but the possibilities!  What might be done with such a program focusing on, for instance, music in response to war (or even just *a* war, such as the Napoleonic Wars, WWI, or WWII)–there is so much of it, expressing such a range of emotions in both victory and defeat.  What could one do with a concert of ballet music–but focused on the history of the ballet and the culture surrounding it?  How can history, art, and music unite to augment our understanding? For all of the reasons I mentioned recently, music has a way of transcending dry facts and figures to touch the listener’s spirit and soul.  Indeed, this concert–in an age of concern about Syrian refugees–fulfilled a bigger-picture goal of showing how these cultures have intersected for far longer than most people realize, and how remarkable the parallels were between the two.

Music. Art. Story. History.


All are one.


Special thanks to Karina Bates for the invite to the concert.

If you’d like to see this work, there are still perfomances tonight (Feb. 23) and tomorrow at Koerner Hall in Toronto.  Or visit Tafelmusik’s website,, where you can find out about their upcoming US tour, or to purchase the video recording made during the 2016 original debut of the work.  You can also find a list of all of the images seen during the concert at the same website.