Review by Judith Caldwell
Wednesday evening in Hamilton, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Trio Arabica presented the Leipzig-Damascus Coffee House – a marvelously original multimedia presentation – conceived and scripted by Alison Mackay, Tafelmusik’s bass player. The images, music and storytelling evoked the cultures of Leipzig and Damascus in the eighteenth century – two trade centres exposed to new ideas and cultural influences – one of which was coffee.
In Leipzig, coffee was drunk from delicate Meissen cups with floral patterns on the inside. The coffee was weak enough to see the flowers through it, so Leipzig coffee was called ‘the floral drink’. Photo by Sian Richards
In Damascus, the patterns were on the outside, so there was no chance of seeing flowers through it.
In 1701, Georg Phillip Telemann arrived in Leipzig to study law, and took over the Collegium Musicum for students at the University, many of whom were talented amateur musicians. They performed at coffee houses which became destinations for conversation and entertainment.
The evening’s concert began with Telemann’s Ouverture in D Major – a stately gathering. Then, Maryem Tollar, sang Badat Min al Khidri in Arabic, which gave voice to Damascus. Our guide and narrator was Alon Nashman who told interesting stories about coffee and read tales from Cervantes and Scheherezade. These stories were told at the coffee houses by professional story-tellers such as Lully of France and Omar Al Batsh, from Persia, as the coffee culture spread.
Telemann, and his friends Handel and Bach, both lived in Leipzig. During the big Fairs in that city, many Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews were allowed in to trade.
A hauntingly beautiful Klezmer tune of the period, Tish Nign, was played by two violinists. Similarly, Damascus allowed both Christians and Jews to live and work there. Many of the Arabic songs and stories deliberately avoided religious content so as not to cause discomfort.
There were many differences between the two styles of music. The Syrians learned their airs and symphonies by ear and retained them in memory. The performers played in unison and the instruments were different.
Trio Arabica, consisting of Maryem Tollar, voice and qanun; Naghmeh Farahmand, percussion and Demetri Petsalakis, oud; played the complex tonal and rhythmic structures of classical Arabic music. Tollar sang in Arabic and Farahmand offered a stunning percussion solo that was an audience favourite.
During the evening, the music switched back and forth between the two styles and the musicians from both genres moved about the stage in fluid groupings – made possible because they all played the entire program from memory. It gave the music and stories a cohesion that moved effortlessly between places and times – a wonderful journey of discovery – which culminated in projected pictures of current day Leipzig residents welcoming Syrian refugees.
As Bud Roach from Hammer Baroque said, it was a ‘huge act of generosity’ for Tafelmusik to bring this amazing program to Hamilton and show us how music always bridges gaps and enriches lives.