Gates Hall, on Wednesday night March 6th, was filled with tongue trilling, drumming, and strumming from a buzuq (a long -necked fretted lute), an oud (lutelike with a bent neck) and a qanun (a string instrument like a zither). Two old world music groups collaborated for a theatrical presentation that celebrated the tradition of music in coffeehouses in Leipzig and Damascus. Trio Arabica performed traditional songs from Syria and Egypt and Iraq. The Canadian Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra played music from the 18th century. Images of 18th century art from both Leipzig and Damascus were projected behind the musicians. The blending of the period strings and woodwinds with the Middle Eastern instruments and drums created a contemporary feel to the evening that was narrated by Alon Nashman. The sum of the whole exceeded the parts.
Both Leipzig and Damascus were diverse centers for trade and learning that attracted Muslim, Jewish and Christian merchants. The Collegium Musicum, founded by Georg Philipp Tellemann in 1720, performed weekly public concerts at Leipzig’s Zimmermans’ coffee house. Johann Sebastian Bach took over and directed these free performances from 1729 – 1739. During this period coffeehouses in Damascus offered traditional Arabic music to their patrons. This link was the foundation for the Tales of Two Cities program presented by Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Trio Arabica for Friends of Chamber Music, Denver.
While the performance delighted the ears and entertained, it was the blending of Arabica and Germanic flavors that intrigued me to learn more about Alison Mackay, double bass player with Tafelmusik and originator of the multimedia concept of Tales of Two Cities: The Leipzig-Damascus Coffee House. Other conceptual programming by Mackay included J.S.Bach: The Circle of Creation, The Galileo Project and Four Seasons, a Cycle of the Sun. She created these programs for Tafelmusik to “turn a different lens on our music.” A 2012 production, House of Dreams, moved the listener from the images of a house at the end of the Grand Canal in Venice to the Palais Royale in Paris and further yet to a bookshop in Leipzig. A member since the inception of Tafelmusik, Ms. Mackay will retire at the end of the 2019 season.