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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

RECORD KEEPING | After A Long Wait, Tafelmusik's Tales Of Two Cities Gets Immortalized

By Paul E. Robinson on December 13, 2017

Tales of Two Cities: The Leipzig-Damascus Coffee House
Tales of Two Cities: The Leipzig-Damascus Coffee House. Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra/Jeanne Lamon. Trio Arabica. Alon Nashman & Maryem Tollar, narrators. Conceived, programmed and scripted by Alison Mackay.  Tafelmusik Media TMK 1035 DVD & CD. Total Time: 97:15 (DVD); 70:00 (CD).

Alison Mackay has been with Tafelmusik for 38 years — she was one of its founding members when Kenny Solway put the group together in 1979. She continues to play violone and double bass for Tafelmusik but she has also contributed a significant number of multi-disciplinary projects for the orchestra including The Four Seasons: A Cycle of the Sun, The Galileo Project, House of Dreams, and now Tales of Two Cities. This latest project is also timely in drawing together music, history and culture from Europe and the Muslim world.

At a time when wedges are being driven between cultures, Alison draws attention to what we share and what we have shared for centuries. But the project is not only admirable, but as a concert and DVD presentation, it is beautifully realized and enormously inspiring.

Both Leipzig and Damascus have long been important trading centres as well as famous centres of learning and scholarship. Also, as Alison points out, “they both enjoyed a lively tradition of coffee houses in which the finest musicians of the city performed.” While there is no sign of coffee or coffee drinking in their concert presentation — would have been a nice idea to have period coffee-making equipment and cups from both Damascus and Leipzig on stage — Alison and stage director Marshall Pynkoski bring together the seventeen musicians of the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and the three members of Trio Arabica, the latter playing qanun, oud and percussion on the stage of the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto for a celebration of music from both European and Muslim cultures. Alun Nashman provides lively narration to convey the high points of the historical context and how it evolved over time.

The album includes a CD containing only music, and this “soundtrack” was recorded at Grace Church on-the-Hill in September and October 2016.

There is also a DVD which includes the same music but with Nashman’s narration and with video of the performance given on the stage of the Aga Khan Museum a few months later. In the video, all the musicians are performing from memory, but in fact, they are miming to the pre-recorded soundtrack. But no matter. It all works beautifully as a film, as produced and directed by Gordon Henderson.

The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra is a testament to what hard work and dedication to art and scholarship can do over time, under the leadership of an artist of the calibre of Jeanne Lamon. This is a world-class period instrument ensemble and in this concert the playing is superb. Patrick G. Jordan is wonderful in a movement from Telemann’s Viola Concerto in G major, and Aisslinn Noksy is stunning in a movement from Torelli’s Violin Concerto in E minor.

Trio Arabica is no less impressive in its own musical world. Maryem Tollar sang beautifully and percussionist Naghmeh Farahmand, using only her fingers while holding what looked like a large drum head, created sounds and rhythms that had to be heard to be believed. While she obviously benefitted from amplification, it was still an impressive tour de force. While the two groups performed on their own for the most part, when they did play together, as in the first and last pieces on the program it seemed perfectly natural.

The DVD includes some bonus features, mainly excerpts from the music rehearsals. There was also a longer video showing the restoration of the Damascus Room in Dresden. According to Alison Mackay, this is “a room with exuberant Islamic designs and baroque European influences which was brought from Damascus to the Ethnological Museum in Dresden in 1899.” The designs in this room were inspiration for the sets used in Tafelmusik’s Toronto concert.

In the media recently we have heard a lot about Syrians flooding into both Germany and Canada to escape the fighting in their native land and how acceptance by the local populations has not always been easy. The Damascus Room and events like Tafelmusik’s Tales of Two Cities concert and recording give us hope that different cultures can learn to embrace and even enrich each other.

Tales of Two Cities: The Leipzig-Damascus Coffee House is available directly from www.tafelmusik.org in both digital and physical formats.

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Paul E. Robinson

Over the course of his career, Paul Evans Robinson has acquired a formidable reputation as a broadcaster, author, conductor, and teacher. He has communicated the joy of music to more than a generation of musicians and music lovers in Canada and elsewhere.

Paul E. Robinson

Over the course of his career, Paul Evans Robinson has acquired a formidable reputation as a broadcaster, author, conductor, and teacher. He has communicated the joy of music to more than a generation of musicians and music lovers in Canada and elsewhere.
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