Sweet and Savory

The Directors’ Concert has been a mainstay for the Baroque Chamber Orchestra over the years. This informal and (almost) annual event has been an opportunity for Cynthia and me, as BCOC co-directors, to perform some of our favorite chamber music and some aspects of Baroque music that each of us have been exploring, on our own or together. It’s also been a chance for us to talk about what we are especially excited about in the season to come.

This Thursday our Directors’ Concert takes on special meaning as a key event in our transition back to live music-making… with an audience! Our program  “A Sweet and Savory Mix,” is one that we have had to postpone more than once  to the pandemic. We are more excited than ever to share this program with you now!

At the heart of our program is Arcangelo Corelli, with three of his iconic sonatas from opus 5 for violin and continuo. One of the three is the composer’s famous variations on La Folia (we may add a few variations of our own!). Rounding out this decidedly Italian program is an extraordinary sonata by Isabella Leonarda, a long-neglected predecessor of Corelli (their lives actually overlapped by about 50 years), whose unique compositional voice can be heard in her instrumental sonatas as well as her sacred vocal music.

To celebrate the joy of live music-making in the moment that we have all been missing, we will also include an original improvisation on this program. I am excited to welcome my continuo partner and BCOC lutenist-guitarist Paul Holmes Morton to our directors’ concert this year.

I hope you can join us for this concert! It will be great to see so many of you in person again, and Cynthia and I look forward to a wonderful evening together… with sweet and savory music from the Baroque!

Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado presents
A Sweet and Savory Mix
Cynthia Miller Freivogel, violin
Frank Nowell, harpsichord
Paul Morton, theorbo
Thursday, July 29, 2021 at 7:00 pm
Wellshire Presbyterian Church
2999 S. Colorado Blvd.

Please purchase your ticket online in advance, https://app.arts-people.com/index.php?show=126504 and bring your paper receipt or display it on your phone.

The Future of Baroque

Our first Discover Baroque series last May was on “The Story of the Early Music Movement.”  I ended that presentation by talking about current and future trends in the movement and wondering, where do we go next? Our upcoming Discover Baroque, on November 4, may answer some of those questions as we spotlight four young performers who are making careers in the Baroque performance scene.

Each of these artist has in some way been part of the circle for the Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado.

Chloe Prendergast was our apprentice violinist in the 2014-15 season. She also served BCOC as an organizational intern, helping to develop a new “Envoy” program for expanding our audience, and previously played in our Baroque con Brio youth ensemble. She is now based in the Netherlands, where she is artistic director of the Beethoven Festival of the Hague and a member of Holland Baroque and the Butter Quartet.

Stephen Gamboa-Diaz was the winner of our first Young Artist Spotlight in May 2018, when he played with us for the complete Brandenburg Concertos (many of you will remember his wonderful performance of the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto!). He is a church musician in Connecticut and is in demand as a soloist and chamber musician as harpsichordist and organist.

Paul Holmes Morton is familiar to BCOC fans as a member of our continuo group (on theorbo, lute, and guitar), most recently for our January 2020 performances of Dido and Aeneas. He is a musician of wide-ranging interests, blending music of the Baroque and earlier periods with other genres that include Celtic and Appalachian styles.

Karin Cuellar Rendon is new to our BCOC circle, but is a violinist who we hope you will get to know better in the coming months! A native of Bolivia who currently pursuing a musical doctorate at McGill University, she is helping to bring to 21st-century light the music of Pedro Ximinez Abrill, a Pervian-Bolivian composer of the late 18th and early 19th century.

I look forward to having an informal conversation with these four young artists. I will be asking them to talk a little about their careers and current projects, and to share their thoughts on what’s next in historical performance.

I hope you will join us!

Discover Baroque: “The Future of Baroque”

Four young performers in BCOC’s circle join an informal conversation with Frank Nowell, talking about why they chose a career path in Baroque performance, some of their current music-making projects, and what they envision for the future. Join us for this special edition of Discover Baroque, a series of monthly learning sessions on Zoom. Come and be inspired!

Wednesday November 4 at 12 noon MT 
Register here for this free program.
There is no need to register again if you have participated in earlier Discover Baroque sessions. A recording will be available after the live event.

Hearts Resounding

Music is always placed in time, and has a meaning that is particular to that time.

Of course when we play historical music that is especially true; the music has a context in its own time period. But playing Baroque music in the 21st century also taps into the context of our present day. I re-read Pablo Casals memoirs, Joys and Sorrows this summer and was moved by how Casals always viewed music in the context of his own time and place, including the struggles for freedom, peace and human rights.

Our season opening concert, Hearts Resounding celebrates the power of music – in this present moment – to evoke our brightest joys and tap into our deepest longings. The music I chose for this program expresses both joys and sorrows (as so much of Baroque music does!), but also our longings to connect – to connect with each other across our divides… and with something larger than ourselves.

For the musicians of Baroque Chamber Orchestra this concert was the first time we had made music together since March 1. As we rehearsed and recorded through the week, I felt there was a deep gratitude present to be able to be together again… and to have the opportunity to play music together. Of course, we were missing something very important – having an audience in the room with us. For now we will have to rely on technology to help us make that connection.

We were also missing some of our core musicians who were unable to be with us for this concert. Unable to travel at this time, violinist Cynthia Miller Freivogel will be featured in our November program Salzburg 1715, recorded in a beautiful Amsterdam church (this is a virtual concert not to be missed!).  Lara Turner was also unable to be with us, but recorded a beautiful rendition of the Bach Prelude in G for Hearts Resounding.

This program is a blend of the familiar and not-so-familiar. Bach’s Air and Gavotte and the Cello Prelude in G major are familiar friends, and the Handel Passacaille and Gigue has been a signature piece for BCOC concerts over the last 15 years. The Telemann viola concerto (with Emily Bowman as soloist) is to me one of the happiest pieces in the repertoire!  In the new and unfamiliar category we have a new chaconne for solo violin composed and performed by concertmaster Martin Davids, plus an Air and Variations by Michael Festing, an English contemporary of Handel.

I hope you will join us for Hearts Resounding!

This virtual concert begins at 5pm Mountain Time  Oct. 18, 2020, with a live chat, and will be available on demand for one week.
Click here to register
Suggested donation $20. A link will be emailed to all who register and to subscribers shortly before the concert.

Program Listing:

Bach, Air and Gavotte from Suite in D Major, BWV 1068
(preceded by a harpsichord prelude by Fischer)

Handel, Sinfonia in B-Flat Major, HWV 338                     

Davids, Chaconne for Solo Violin

Telemann, Concerto in G major for Viola, Strings and Continuo, TWV 51:G9

Bach, Prelude from Suite in G major for Solo Cello, BWV 1007
Festing, Air and Variations from Sonata in G minor for violin and continuo

Handel, Passacaille and Gigue  from Terpsichore, HWV 8b  

Singular Voices

Singular Voices began with a desire to go deeper into a distinctly beautiful corner of the Baroque repertoire: solo unaccompanied works for violin, cello, and many other instruments. Most people think immediately of the monumental works by Bach in this genre, but a number of Bach’s predecessors and contemporaries also explored this musical territory.

Unaccompanied music for one player can draw us into new terrain emotionally, and achieve an intimacy that is distinctly different than chamber works involving two or more musicians. To delve deeper into this musical world, I invited three collaborating artists representing very different art forms to listen (with their own ears) to musical selections… and see where their imagination took them.

• Juan J. Morales was born in the U.S. to an Ecuadorian mother and a Puerto Rican father. He grew up in Colorado hearing family stories that inspired much of his first book of poetry. He is the Director of Creative Writing and an Assistant Professor at Colorado State University-Pueblo, and also teaches at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. What especially attracted me to Juan’s poetry was the way he imbues the details of everyday life with a larger, mythical quality.

• Jessica Robblee refers to herself as a “theatre-maker,” which can include the creation of new theater pieces as writer, producer, and performer. She has appeared often with Buntport Theater and Stories on Stage, and is the recipient of the Westword Mastermind Award for Innovation in the Performing Arts. I am struck by Jessica’s ability to use humor as an opening to shed new and surprising light on our shared humanity.

• Joseph Gaines has a dual career as an operatic tenor and photographer, and is winner of the 2019 Historic Denver Photography award. I am captivated especially by Joe’s photographs of two very different subjects – Western landscapes and urban architecture, and his desire to “map the intersections of time and eternity” through his work.

I am excited to feature in this program the “singular voices” of Stacy Brady (violin), Sarah Biber (viola da gamba) and Linda Lunbeck (recorder). With three musicians from BCOC’s circle and three collaborating artists assembled, we embarked on a unique adventure! The music is selected from solo fantasias and sonatas by J.S. Bach, Telemann, and Abel.

Special thanks to Museo de las Americas for hosting us for this virtual concert. Their current exhibition in collaboration with the Denver Art Museum, “Rhythm and Ritual: Music of the Ancient Americas,” is available for viewing until October 17. It was an honor for us to be able to record our concert in the midst of this special exhibit, which connects us in the 21st century with the ancient roots of music-making in the Americas.

Singular Voices
Sign up to register to watch Singular Voices:  https://lp.constantcontactpages.com/su/czoUmMM.
After you register, the Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado will email you the link shortly before the concert, to watch the Premiere of Singular Voices on our new YouTube channel. The chat will be open when the concert begins at 7pm on Thursday, October 1, and will close at the end of the concert. The link will be available to access the video on-demand for one week.


The Waves, or, Las Olas and The Dream of Acceptance
written and performed by Juan J. Morales
with Violin Fantasia no. 10 in D major and Recorder Fantasia in no. 8 in G minor,
by Georg Philipp Telemann

A Very Particular Lady Has an Evening at Home
written and performed by Jessica Robblee
with Violin Sonata no. 2 in A minor: Grave and Allegro, by Johann Sebastian Bach

Supernal Geography: photographs by Joseph Gaines
with Sonata in A minor for viola da gamba by Carl Friedrich Abel

Goldbergs, with strings attached

This weekend the Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado performs a brand new version of the Goldberg Variations for strings and continuo, arranged by our own violist Alexander Vittal. He is a superb arranger whose string arrangements of a wide variety of music are often performed by the Sphere Ensemble. I caught up with Alex to ask him a few questions about the Goldbergs while he was taking a break from his latest project – a medley of Dolly Parton songs!

  1. What did you find most interesting and enjoyable about this project? Most challenging?

Probably the most enjoyable part  was getting to know the Goldberg Variations on a very intimate level. There is nothing like hearing a masterpiece for the first time, and this project provided an incredible opportunity to really dive into the score, many recordings, and to open my creative thinking into how I could orchestrate this for BCOC in a way that is completely respectful to the original and Bach, but perhaps adds new dimensions with the introduction of strings and different groupings of players. Both most challenging and enjoyable about the project was realizing that I could really take some risks and maybe push boundaries a little further knowing that we have outstanding musicians who will be able to handle anything I throw at them!

  1. How did you approach each variation, and decide what forces to use for each?

When it comes to orchestrating an already existing score, my process has a few established steps. First, read the score and follow along while I listen to a few different recordings to get a few takes on existing interpretations of the music on harpsichord, and also piano. While listening and reading, I am already hearing possible musical phrases played on different instruments based on the “personality” of the music. Next, I carefully examine the ranges of the notes to see if any particular sections exclude any instruments.  From there, it is a process of imagination- hearing and seeing BCOC and the specific musicians on stage performing the music.

  1. What are you hoping the audience will experience through your arrangements?

As an avid listener, I am always most powerfully drawn to music where I can really understand the musical phrasing and structure. I am hoping that my arrangement will amplify both the bigger picture of the musical phrasing as well as the subtle and fleeting beautiful moments that are everywhere in Bach, yet so easy to miss. Also, I am hoping that the ever changing ensemble will keep the audience’s ears fresh and focus attuned to the next unexpected turn!

  1. It seems like your arrangement was especially well suited for our ensemble and the personality of our orchestra. Can you comment on that and whether that entered into your thinking?

This is a great question, and one I think about often, especially when studying chamber or orchestral works.  When writing a new cantata every week, with very limited rehearsal time, I am certain that J.S. Bach made specific compositional choices based on who he knew would be playing the part the following Sunday. Another great example is Mozart. I took a class on Mozart operas in college, and learned that the orchestra in Prague had a very strong viola section, and I can personally attest that the viola part Mozart wrote for Don Giovanni (which was commissioned for a performance in Prague) is really challenging- much more so than the viola part in The Marriage of Figaro (which was composed for Vienna). We could also consider Vivaldi, who wrote many of his works for his students at the Ospedale della Pietà. Likewise, when arranging, the specific performers always factor in to my decisions. As I know all these musicians closely, I have a sense for how to draw on our strengths as a full group, as members of sections, and individually to produce the best results that also hopefully feel good to play and like everyone is being utilized to their full potential.

  1. How do you think this project, and the performance when it happens, will change your perspective on the Goldberg Variations going forward?

Whenever I have done an arranging project, on future hearings of the original work, I can’t help but hear my version in the performance of the original.  In some cases, I hear a unique or different take on the phrasing that I really like and think, maybe I should revisit my arrangement and consider how to work that in.  The process is really never finished for me!

Goldberg Variations

On February 29 and March 1 the Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado will perform an exciting new arrangement of the Goldberg Variations (bcocolorado.org). We will also perform the concert on February 28 in Tabernash (grandconcerts.org). I’m very excited to share this program with our audiences! Below are my program notes.

Legend has it that Johann Sebastian Bach wrote the so-called Goldberg Variations for Count Kaiserling, who asked his private harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg to perform the variations late at night to cheer him up during sleepless nights. It’s an attractive story, but modern scholars say there’s no evidence and find two issues with the account: Goldberg would have been 13 years old at the time Bach wrote the variations, and Bach did not inscribe the title page with a dedication to the Count, which protocol would have required. Bach’s title of the work, translated to English is, “Aria with diverse variations for a harpsichord with two keyboards.” The name Goldberg Variations has nevertheless stuck through the centuries.

Whether or not the story of sleepless nights has any truth, it’s fruitful to dig deeper and look at the “Aria with Diverse Variations” in the framework of a large, multi-year project for Bach: the publishing of the Clavier-Übung (Keyboard Practice). Between 1731 and 1741, Bach published four keyboard collections as a summation of his work as a player and composer of keyboard music. There were four volumes (with the Goldberg Variations as the final volume) encompassing most of the types of keyboard music and all the national styles prevalent in Europe that Bach would have been familiar with. “With this kaleidoscope of published keyboard music,” according to Christoph Wolff, “Bach had erected nothing short of a monument to his own artistry, anticipating the Obituary’s declaration that he was ‘the greatest organ and clavier player that we have ever had.'”

Although the Goldberg Variations were circulated widely in and after Bach’s time, there is no record of public performances until the 20th century. The harpsichordist Wanda Landowska made several pioneering recordings beginning in the 1930’s, using an instrument quite different from the harpsichords of Bach’s time. Pianist Glenn Gould made iconic and best-selling recordings on the modern piano in 1955 and 1981. His eccentric but captivating performances brought the Goldberg Variations to light for modern audiences, and later began a debate about which of the two recordings was best (a debate in part about youth vs. maturity!).

With the evolution of the early music movement, a number of notable harpsichordists have performed and recorded the Goldberg Variations from the 1980’s to the present day, bringing a new focus to the work’s original purpose with the unique sound of two-manual harpsichords made in the 18th-century tradition, along with a wide range of interpretation. At the same time, there have been a number of transcriptions for other instruments and ensembles during this period  ̶  everything from jazz trio and guitar to digital synthesizer. This is not too surprising given the popularity of the work and the fact that much of Bach’s music can migrate convincingly to different instruments and sounds.

Hearing the Goldberg Variations as a whole, one can delight in the simple yet beautiful aria, and enjoy Bach’s ingenuity in probing that melody in 30 different ways, then concluding with a return to the aria. Every third variation is a canon, a form that relies on strict imitation of melodic lines. (Think of a round like “Row, row, row your boat” to understand how a canon works). As if that wasn’t enough, Bach raises the level of the canon each time: canon at the unison, canon at the second, canon at the third, and so on. Other variations draw on a variety of styles and dances familiar to Bach and his listeners, and others stretch the technical demands on the keyboardist beyond anything seen to that point.

In all of this, we can see Bach’s continual pursuit of musical perfection. Wolff points to the principle of unity, derived from the concept of the harmony of the spheres, as a driving force in Bach’s musical career. “Individually and collectively Bach’s works demonstrate the musical realization of unity in diversity, of musical perfection.”

However, if that seems too lofty as a way to hear the Goldberg Variations, one can still think of them as a wonderful way to calm and cheer a restless night!


Our ensemble has been exploring the Goldberg Variations for several years now, trying out different ensemble arrangements of specific variations. As the next step in this journey, we wanted to create a new performance of the Aria and all the variations in order, one that would honor the genius of Bach’s original for harpsichord while creating a new dimension through the addition of strings. The resulting performance includes 9 variations played by the solo harpsichord, 12 variations for a full ensemble of strings and continuo, and 9 variations for smaller subsets of instruments. I am grateful to our violist and arranger Alex Vittal, who has created a fresh, adventurous arrangement of the Goldbergs that reflects the unique personality of our orchestra and its players. And to my friend and colleague Katherine Heater, who has selected nearly a third of these virtuosic variations to perform in their original splendor on  two-manual harpsichord.

Any performance or hearing of the Goldberg Variations feels like a journey in itself. We’re glad you’ve joined us for the journey!

Frank Nowell

Dido and Aeneas

The Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado will begin 2020 with a new production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. I’m very excited to come back to this gem from the English Baroque after 10 years. There are so many things to like in this opera! It’s just about one hour long, with a simple but compelling story told with a wonderful sense of timing and pacing. It’s in English, so no need for translation or supertitles. And finally there is Purcell’s inventive and very accessible music, beginning with an almost breathless overture that draws you right in, and concluding with one of the most popular songs in classical music – Dido’s Lament. Purcell managed to fill an hour-long opera with so much – a tragedy with a little comedy and satire, touching on themes of love, lust, politics and gender.

We have a wonderful cast for these performances. Emily Marvosh (contralto) will sing the role of Dido and her nemesis the Sorceress, which brings an interesting twist to the production! Andrew Garland (baritone) will sing Aeneas. He is a multi-dimensional artist who has recently joined the faculty of University of Colorado at Boulder; I’m thrilled to have him join BCOC for the first time. Danielle Sampson (soprano) has performed with BCOC often, including the last year’s Orfeo. She was also our first Dido during her student days in Denver. Danielle made the switch along the way from being an alto to now singing soprano, so I asked her to be our Belinda this time around!

We are taking a first step toward doing some staging, but it will be minimal and focused on the four main roles. The whole concept of a “semi-staged” production can be a little vague – there is a wide range of possibilities. But I think semi-staging can be very effective, especially with Baroque opera. Without all the elements of a fully staged production, an opera like Dido and Aeneas can communicate in other ways – through gestures, facial expressions, and body language. And the performers can connect with the audience in a powerful way, allowing it to focus on the visceral human emotions.

Finally, I wanted to mention a special project that is happening around our production. Heather Delzell, a Denver artist who painted a new portrait of Arcangelo Corelli featured on the cover of our recent CD, Corelli’s Circle, asked her art students at Regis Jesuit High School to paint portraits based on Dido and Aeneas. “The majority of the students painted portraits of their most revered character,” according to Heather. “Some felt called to depict Carthage’s landscape, or a dramatic scene of Dido and Aeneas in a deep embrace. The larger goal was to ferret out the deeper truth of their subjects. Beyond likeness, capture and uncover the interiority of their subjects.”

The results will be shown in a special exhibit in the lobby at our January 12 performance at Central Presbyterian Church in Denver, with the work of some 25 students on display.

Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado presents
Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas
Saturday, January 11, 2020 at 7:30 pm
St. Luke’s UMC, 8817 S Broadway, Highlands Ranch
Sunday January 12, 2020 at 3:00 pm
Antonio Brico Stage, Central Presbyterian Church, 1660 Sherman St, Denver


Orfeo and the Power of Music

A big thank you to all who joined us for Monteverdi’s Orfeo to close out the Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado’s 2018-19 season. For me it was an incredible thrill to perform this early masterpiece, a culmination of a two-year journey, and the perfect conclusion to a season that called “Music that Moves.” I was in awe of the entire cast, the wonderful early wind specialists, and of course our own BCOC musicians, all led and inspired by guest conductor-lutenist Stephen Stubbs.  (To view bios from our principal guest artists, see BCOC’s Guest Artists page).

From our vantage point in 2019, Monteverdi’s Orfeo can be viewed through various lenses. The work is often considered as the first great opera, and has secured a place in both the mainstream opera repertory and the historical performance scene. Monteverdi and the early experimenters in the art form we now call opera were concerned with reviving principles from ancient Greek theatre and music, which makes the resulting works something like “early music times two” for us! “We are evoking a performance of 400 years ago that itself sought to evoke a performance more than a millennium earlier still.” (Tom Kelly)

In its time Orfeo was sometimes called a fable in music (Favola in Musica), which points to Renaissance themes and philosophy that would have been familiar to the work’s first audience in Mantua, 1607. But Orfeo is at its heart a classic, timeless love story, resounding through the centuries to Monteverdi’s astonishing music. It also speaks to the power of music itself. After all, Orpheus himself is the legendary musician who “drew wild beasts to him by his singing.” And Monteverdi significantly begins the entire work (after the signature opening toccata) with an extended monologue delivered by the personification of Music herself, including this verse:

I am Music, who in sweet accents
can calm each troubled heart,
and now with noble anger, now with love,
can kindle the most frigid minds.

In the words of John Eliot Gardner, “the truth is that Monteverdi’s ‘musical fable’ is a brilliant and compelling manifesto for the inalienable power of music – to complement and mesh with good verse, but also to take over the moment when words prove inadequate.”

Early Music Month

For some of us, every month is Early Music Month! But as it turns out, March is specifically designated that way. Early Music Month is a national, grassroots campaign designed to raise awareness of early (Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque) music throughout the North American music community.

I agree with Thomas Forrest Kelly that early music is “beautiful and intriguing; it expands our horizons and nourishes our souls.” In his wonderful book, Early Music: a Very Short Introduction, Kelly talks about two key trends of the early music movement:  a rediscovery of little-known repertories, and the effort to recover lost performing styles.

The Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado is certainly shaped and influenced by these two trends; in fact they are a vital part of why we exist. BCOC lives within a rich and vibrant early music “scene.” This scene is, at the same time, local and national (or really, international).

Locally, the growth and vitality of early music in the Denver area has been exciting to watch. This local scene includes ensembles and organizations like Seicento, Boulder Bach Festival, Colorado Bach Ensemble, and the Denver Early Music Consort, to name just a few. It also includes chamber-music groups like Semplice, Parish House Baroque (based in Colorado Springs), and the new viol consort Byrd on a Wire. A wonderful chamber series, Happy Hour Concerts, spotlights a wide variety of early-music artists and small groups in an intimate, casual setting.

A number of local universities enhance the scene and help cultivate the players and audiences of the future through their early music programs and ensembles. This school year the University of Colorado in Boulder inaugurated the Eugene D. Eaton, Jr., Chair in Baroque Music Performance with renowned harpsichordist Robert Hill, who came to CU after serving as professor for historical keyboard instruments and performance practice at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik Freiburg in Germany.

As important as the local early music scene is, BCOC also benefits from, and contributes to, a lively national scene. About a quarter of our core members and a number of our guest artists are from outside Colorado. This enriches our ensemble with different perspectives, new research, and new insights. And the collegiality and friendships multiply as we play with each other and expand our own networks. (A positive aspect of social media is being able to keep up on what each other is doing!)

I have the honor of serving on the board of directors of Early Music America, and am inspired by their work to “develop, strengthen, and celebrate early music in North America.” In addition to sponsoring Early Music Month, that work includes awards, scholarships, grants, web-based resources, and an annual Young Performers Festival & Emerging Artists Showcase. I encourage you to become a member of EMA if you love early music. It will enable you to tap into a wider network while supporting the good work they do to cultivate the future of early music.

And, I hope you will celebrate Early Music Month: attend local concerts, listen to your favorite recordings (and buy some new ones), and above all expand your horizons through this beautiful and intriguing music.


Tales of Two Cities

I’m very excited about Tafelmusik’s Tales of Two Cities program, which will be presented twice in the Denver-Boulder area next week as part of the Canadian Baroque orchestra’s national tour. Tales of Two Cities: The Leipzig-Damascus Coffee House is a multi-media exploration of the rich musical tradition and innovation of 18th -century coffee houses in Germany and Syria. The program was conceived  by Tafelmusik double bassist Alison Mackay, who also designed previous multimedia presentations for the ensemble. I had the opportunity to ask Alison some questions via email to find out more about this extraordinary program.

How did the concept of Tales of Two Cities come to be?
I had been preparing an earlier project on the subject of J.S. Bach and his material world — it was a celebration of the artisans, performers and community members whose labour made it possible for Bach to realize his musical inspiration in actual performances.  One topic was the family who for five years had supplied the paper on which Bach wrote out some of his most beloved works.  The paper is identifiable from its watermarks, the trademark designs made in thin wire which were placed in the molds which shaped each sheet of paper at the time.

In doing research about eighteenth-century watermarks I came across some fascinating work being done at the library of the University of Leipzig about European papers which had been used in the Refaiya Collection, a body of manuscripts, most of them from the 17th and 18th centuries, from a private home in Damascus.  The collection, which contains poetry, travel literature, love letters, and scientific, legal and religious texts came to Leipzig University, because of its department of Arabic studies which dated from  the time of Bach.

One of the treasures in the collection was a set of performance books owned by a storyteller who performed tales from the Arabian Nights in the coffee-houses of Damascus in the eighteenth century.  Because of the importance of coffeehouse culture in Bach’s tenure in Leipzig, and because, as I learned along the way,  both Damascus and Leipzig were importance centres of scholarship, commerce and music in the 18th century, I thought the two cities could make a fascinating setting for an evening of classical music from Europe and the Arabic world.

How does this project differ from your previous multimedia programs?
This project is blessed with the participation Trio Arabica,  a wonderful ensemble of players of Arabic classical music who have worked with me to establish points at which we could juxtapose pieces linked by theme or by rhythmic structure, or points where we could actually play together.  The playing of our guests gives the concert a unique character and is an invigorating source of musical inspiration for us in the orchestra.  Also, some small sections of the narrated script are spoken in Arabic.

What is the significance of the “coffee house,”  in terms of music, history and culture?
Both Damascus and Leipzig had lively coffeehouse cultures in the eighteenth century. The coffee plant, coffea arabica, is native to Ethiopia but is first known to have been cultivated as a crop in Yemen, where it was consumed in Sufi worship.  Coffee gradually traveled north from Yemen to Syria, to Istanbul and then to Europe through the city of Venice.

The earliest coffeehouses in Damascus became places of refreshment, story-telling and musical entertainment. Quite a bit is known about the actual stories that were told and the instruments that were played in the coffeehouses in Syria in the mid eighteenth century when our concert is set.

The first coffeehouses were opened in Leipzig around 1700, just after public street lighting was introduced into the city.  For the first time, ordinary people who didn’t have servants or carriages to protect them  could walk in safety in the streets after their working day and enjoy the new exotic products of coffee, tea, and hot chocolate.  By 1740 there were eight of these establishments in Leipzig and several of them became associated with performances of music.  For a number of years Bach directed concerts in Zimmermann’s café on Friday evenings from 8 until 10.

Have there been surprises as your vision of the program became a reality?
I had wanted to choose a story for our actor to tell in the course of the concert from the collection of stories which had been owned by the real eighteenth-century storyteller from Damascus.  I had chosen a story about a refugee; the original tale had appeared in the writings of a 12th century scholar and mystic named Al-Ghazali (it’s a story that by the eighteenth century had been absorbed into the loose collection of tales told by Scheherezade which became known as the Arabian Nights.)

At the same time, I was working with a scholar from the Dresden State Museums who was supervising the restoration of an exquisite reception room with decorated wooden wall panels from an eighteenth-century house in Damascus. This room had come into the possession of the museum in Dresden and had been recently restored by Dr. Anke Scarrahs.  She and the museum became partners in the project and provided the beautiful high-resolution images of the historical room which were used in the design of our theatrical set-piece with its projection screen.

One of the features of Damascus reception rooms was the painting of beautiful panels of calligraphy high up on the walls.   There were important Muslim and Christian and Jewish communities in Damascus in the eighteenth century.    In the houses of members of each of these faiths, the calligraphy would always be in Arabic but the texts in Muslim homes would usually be from the Koran or from devotional poetry; in Jewish homes they would be from the Torah and in Christian homes they would usually be from the Psalms or the New Testament.  It turned out by a complete coincidence that the calligraphy in “our” room depicted poetry by that same 12th c. scholar and mystic, Al-Ghazali, who had written the story about the refugee.

So there we were, on our modern stage in Toronto, portraying by a fluke,  two works of an 800-year-old writer in narrated storytelling and in visual art.   It wasn’t until Anke Scharrahs came to Toronto and attended some rehearsals that she realized that the coffeehouse story and the poetry in the calligraphy came from the same author.