What would it be like to travel back in time to a coffee culture from which our own was born or to one of the legendary coffeehouses of yore?

This is the inspiration behind a new performance piece by the Toronto-based Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, which received its world premiere last night at Kingston's Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts. Set in 1740, Tales of Two Cities: The Leipzig-Damascus Coffee House draws on the coffeehouse culture of old Europe and the Middle East to explore the early music of that period — in particular, the ancient Syrian coffeehouses of Damascus and the coffeehouse era of Johann Sebastian Bach in Leipzig, Germany.

Although 3,500 kilometres apart, Damascus and Leipzig shared much in common. Both served as entrepôts for key trade routes — Damascus as a caravan city at the heart of the Silk Road linking the Roman Empire to China, and Leipzig as a crossroads city between two major medieval "highways": the east-west “Via Regia” (Royal Way) and the north-south “Via Imperii” (Imperial Way). Thanks to their geographic connections, both cities spawned thriving coffeehouse communities and developed into important commercial, cultural and knowledge centres.

Referred to as the City of Heroes (or Heldenstadt) for its role in the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Leipzig is also known as the city of music owing to the hundreds of composers who have lived or worked there over the centuries, including Bach, Felix Mendelssohn, Robert and Clara Schumann, Georg Telemann and Richard Wagner, to name a few. It is said tourists to the area can visit the places where illustrious composers once performed or occupied "in a concentration unmatched anywhere in the world." But alas, not so for the city's famed Zimmermann's Coffee House, since razed in World War II, which survives now in legend only as an informal venue where Bach and his contemporaries would debut new music. Zimmermann's is where Bach conducted a musical society, founded by Telemann, during winter months on Friday evenings. It is also where Bach is believed to have first performed his Coffee Contata, a miniature comic opera about an obstinate coffee addiction at a time when coffee was all the rage but viewed by some as a bad habit.

Damascus, meanwhile, is considered the longest habitable old city in the world and Syria one of the planet's most ancient civilizations, dating back to at least 800,000 BC. Syria shares an al-hakawati oral storytelling heritage with other regions in the Middle East personified by itinerant story "experts" who would pass on Arab culture through folktales and fairy tales performed "always in coffee houses." The al-hakawati (a Syrian term for poets, actors, comedians, historians and storytellers) would sit on a stage facing their audience and recite fables, adventures and stories from memory or text, interspersed with poems and jokes, sometimes accompanied by instrumentalists playing classical Arabic music.

The Tafelmusik project aims to evoke these rich, contrasting experiences: for the Leipzig portion of the program, through the music of Bach, Handel and Telemann; a Trio Arabica ensemble will bring to life the sounds and rhythms redolent of the old Damascene coffeehouse landscape. Alternating images of 18th-century interiors descriptive of the raised ajami surfaces common to the late-Ottoman Syrian period and the rustic wood paneling of old Saxony deepen the mood on a projection screen set behind the musicians.  

Dr. Anke Scharrahs, an international expert on the conservation of Syrian-Ottomon interiors, will be on hand during the performance week to speak to audiences about Syrian culture [see here for more details]. For Tales of Two Cities booking information, refer to Tafelmusik's concert calendar. For an in-depth interview about the event with Tafelmusik's concert curator, Alison Mackay, see here. A Tales of Two Cities video teaser is available at this YouTube link.

Did you know? Tafelmusik events at the Trinity-St. Paul's Centre feature coffee supplied by Green Beanery. Tafelmusik concert-goers are eligible for a 10% discount on all food and beverage items at the Green Beanery cafe on the corner of Bloor and Bathurst streets. [Beans and retail items are not included]. Just show us your Tafelmusik subscriber card or retain your ticket receipt as proof of attendance. Offer ends May 2016.

For more photographs of the stage set, refer to the social media page of the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts.