Personal Reflections: Tales of Two Cities

by Patrick Jordan, viola

Tafelmusik’s performance of Alison Mackay’s latest creation, Tales of Two Cities: The Leipzig-Damascus Coffee House, at the Aga Khan Museum last week on Friday, December 9 was many things. It was on the one hand the culmination of the production of the video component of our upcoming DVD of the program. It was also and all of a sudden, one of the most moving and intense performances I have experienced in quite some time.

Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Trio Arabica on stage at the Aga Khan Museum
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Trio Arabica rehearsing at the Aga Khan Museum. Photo: Mara Brown
Recording the audio tracks at Grace Church-on-the-hill. Photo: William Norris
Recording the audio tracks from September 30-October 1 at Grace Church-on-the-hill. Photo: William Norris

Most of the video being shot on Friday was of the audience, not the orchestra — that was done on Thursday. Also, the audio portion of the program had already been completed before this show. So it was in some ways a regular concert with the slightly disconcerting elements of cameramen on the stage and the house lights up to full. Those are distractions to be sure, although being able to see the public so clearly revealed an audience that was a mix of extraordinarily familiar faces and some very new ones. Among the new ones I particularly noticed a couple which I guessed to be of Middle Eastern descent, maybe in their 40s, seated six to seven rows back, in the centre; the man of the couple seemed particularly engaged by the entire program: the actor Alon Nashman, Trio Arabica, the images, and Tafelmusik.

For whatever reason, I allowed the distractions of my day to get the better of me (this happens to all of us on stage in some moment or another). I don’t know if it was the extraordinary circumstance or one of my own all-too-reliable demons, but I didn’t achieve my personal best in the most exposed bit I have in this program (which happens in the first half). I came offstage feeling less than great about myself.

We went out for the second half, and when we reached the very powerful sequence of images that tie the history of Leipzig and Damascus to the current plight of Syrian refugees living in Germany and continuing to celebrate their culture, I again noticed the couple in row 6–7. The woman was gently stroking the arm of her partner, who was becoming visibly more upset as the sequence unfolded. He began to weep. I almost couldn’t stay on stage, I so wanted to go out to offer additional comfort to this fellow. A poem relating and embracing the cultures of various European cities and Damascus follows that sequence, and the man was continuing to weep, his partner continuing to offer solace. I felt almost helpless on stage.

The show ends with a popular song in Arabic, during which the phenomenal singer Maryem Toller encourages the audience to join in. And there before me was the fellow in row 6–7, now beaming and joyously singing this obviously very familiar tune.

One of the perks of being a musician who performs in public routinely is that I get thanked a lot. People clap for me, people tell me “Great concert!” after a show (or even approach me on the street), people ask for an autograph — the variety of thank-you’s is large. And I’m genuinely grateful for the support, I really am. However, it is not often that I want to fall on my knees and thank an audience member like the fellow in row 6–7. But thank him for what exactly? For allowing himself to be so moved? For cleansing me of my preoccupations with my own performance? Because whatever I did today, it obviously didn’t do a whole heck of a lot to blunt the bigger message for him. To thank him for the bigger gift of grace? And where does that grace begin and end? I am certainly eternally grateful to my colleagues on stage and behind the scenes at Tafelmusik. And grateful to the Aga Khan Museum for probably putting me in the path of someone new. But it also reaches very far back, to gratitude to my mother, who came to every concert I played as a kid, and whose support probably made it possible for me to be on that stage today. And to my childhood viola teacher who saved my life at key moments.

For a certainty, I left the concert knowing that today was a good day for art, and a good day for the meeting of souls.

Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, Trio Arabica and Alon Nashman at the world premiere at the Isabel Bader Centre for Performaning Arts. Photo: Bruce Zinger
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, Trio Arabica and Alon Nashman at the world premiere of Tales of Two Cities at the Isabel Bader Centre for Performaning Arts, May 17, 2016. Photo: Bruce Zinger

An act of healing – Tafelmusik’s Tales of Two Cities, with narrator Alon Nashman

Guest Blog Post – Ieva Lucs

To connect the inconceivable struggle and heartbreak of the Syrian refugee crisis with something as mundane as a cup of coffee may seem like an impossible task. Tafelmusik, Canada’s award-winning baroque orchestra, however, find themselves drawing that bizarre parallel in their new show opening in Toronto on Thursday.

Tales of Two Cities: the Leipzig-Damascus Coffee House, written by Alison Mackay (House of Dreams, The Galileo Project), tells the parallel stories of two seemingly disparate cities. In the 18th century, Leipzig (in Germany) and Damascus (in what is now Syria) both sat at the intersections of bustling trade routes. In her creation, Mackay shows how the coffee houses in these cities acted as incubators for the growth of music and storytelling traditions.

The timing of this show is undeniably relevant, as thousands of Syrians flee their homes and Germany opens its borders to them. As part of her research Mackay traveled to Leipzig, in lieu of taking the impossible journey to Damascus, and met with Syrian refugees who had recently settled in the city.

The show that emerged is a multi-disciplinary performance incorporating two live orchestras (Tafelmusik’s own baroque orchestra, as well as Trio Arabica), a singer and a narrator. Our narrator, or “tour guide” as he calls himself, is the multi-talented actor Alon Nashman (Hirsch, Kafka and Son).

Alon photo 2-May2015
Actor Alon Nashman

“To me, this whole project is part of a healing that Toronto can lead the way in,” said Nashman, on the phone from Kingston where the show is having its world premiere. “Many Canadians are opening their hearts and homes to Syrians, but on an emotional level we don’t really know what to do or how to feel this loss. This piece really allows the audience to make that connection without hitting them with a cudgel of those ideas. It’s subtle.”

Playing with Tafelmusik’s baroque orchestra is the Trio Arabica, which is made up of percussionist Naghmeh Farahmand, singer Maryem Tollar, who also plays the zither, and Demetri Petsalakis on a stringed instrument called an oud. The trio evokes the coffee houses of Damascus by playing classical Arabic music with influences from Syria, Iraq and Turkey. When the storyline takes the audience to Germany it will include musical compositions from such classical greats as Telemann, Händel and Bach, all of who worked as musicians in coffee houses in Leipzig.

During rehearsals Nashman watched the two orchestras work together and, he said, they are “loving encountering each other.”

“They are finding ways in which their instruments complement each other as the musical baton is passed back and forth. That’s important cultural work. We can read about what’s going on but to really feel it and to immerse ourselves in it is another matter, and that’s what this piece provides.”

According to Nashman, having a live orchestra as an acting partner isn’t the challenge a person might suppose. Instead, the orchestra does a lot of his “internal emotional preparation” for him.

“The music takes me right there and suddenly I’m practically bawling. I’m going to have to reign it in in order to utter the words because the music is so moving.”

Being that close to the orchestra allows the actor to become a voyeur and peer into the inner workings of the orchestral machine.

“I have the best seat in the house,” said Nashman. “Because I’m in that proximity to the players I hear the breath behind each transition and I see the little looks and indications with the body that allow this entity, which is made up of 20 or so people, to move like one.”

Tales of Two Cities: The Leipzig-Damascus Coffee House.  Photo by Bruce Zinger

Nashman plays many characters in the piece, including a “know-it-all” narrator, Don Quixote, composer Georg Phillip Telemann and various travelers whose diary entries make for expressive and educational monologues. Stage director Marshall Pynkoski, co-founder of Opera Atelier and former dancer at the Moulin Rouge in Paris, encouraged Nashman to go with his inclination “to enter the psyche and body of these beings.”

“He (Pynkoski) is an extremely physical, ballet trained opera director who is into the significant gesture. He’s helping me clarify each of these characters,” said Nashman. “I try to live the life of Telemann or the knight errant, Don Quixote, ever so briefly. I’m probably more active and more embodied than other narrators they’ve had because I just can’t help myself.”

Nashman promises that, during performances, traditional concert behaviour will be subverted. He insists that the experience of this show is about engaging the audience on another level.

“The way that Alison (Mackay) conceives of the text is almost like another way of expressing or expanding the music. Because I’m responsible for creating a large experience for the audience sometimes I’m stomping on applause. There could be some beautiful music playing but I’m just going to come right in. We’re demanding not a polite response but a visceral response.”

So why should Torontonians care about a show to do with strangers in far away lands? Nashman explains why he believes this city will truly understand the piece.

“I feel like this kind of cross referencing, cross pollinating, is one of the most exciting things about living in Toronto.”

Tales of Two Cities: the Leipzig-Damascus Coffee House is at Koerner Hall in Toronto from Thursday May 19th to Sunday May 22nd.