Last night I had the pleasure of attending a concert presented by Tafelmusik, the Toronto-based early music ensemble. The program, "A Tale of Two Cities: the East-West Coffee House," took us on a musical journey involving two cities that were surprisingly connected during the 17th and 18th centuries: Leipzig, Germany, and Damascus, Syria. Both cities were key crossroads on major trade routes, making them cosmopolitan centers were cultures combined and products were traded. Beyond those similarities, the cities were connected with each other through some of those same trade routes, and as such had a vibrant amount of cross-fertilization of music, art, and literature. To bring all this to life, the group joined forces with Trio Arabica to perform a mix of baroque literature and traditional music from the Arab world. An actor took us on a dramatic travelogue of sorts, while projections helped paint the scene. Lastly -- and of critical importance: the performers played from memory, allowing them to move about the stage and interact with each other in a seamless and organic fashion.
I went to the concert with great anticipation, since re-imagining the traditional concert experience is kind of a thing with me: in an increasingly visual and media-integrated world, the 19th-century paradigm for presenting classical music simply must evolve. Such evolution is easier said than done, however. Much of our repertoire doesn't lend itself to theatrical treatment; venues aren't designed to accommodate such things; and performers often aren't equipped to do anything beyond an expert and polished rendering of the music from behind a music stand. So how do you accomplish this? While Tafelmusik's presentation wasn't without its shortcomings, the show pointed in the right direction. Here are three things they did that are vital to creating a theatrical presentation in a classical music setting:
1. They focused on transitions Maintaining a smooth theatrical flow requires seamless transitions between pieces and other elements. In this case, that meant that the actor's monologues needed to lead directly into the beginning and ending of each musical selection. Players needed to know their cue line and jump in without the slightest hesitation or awkwardness, and they needed to make sure they had moved into position ahead of time -- something that would not have been possible had they not been playing from memory.
2. They created an emotional arc A key ingredient to any dramatic or theatrical experience is creating the sense that the individual has embarked on some sort of journey, that what has happened before informs what happens next...so that as one is experiencing the thing one is prompted to ask and/or anticipate what comes next.
3. They were intentional about what they wanted the audience to experience
It was clear that the show wanted to accomplish two things: gain a new understanding of the vibrant mixing of cultures that was taking place during that time in central Europe, and reflect on how that richness contrasts and informs our present day. The music -- whether it be Baroque literature or traditional Arabic folk music -- was the vehicle for conveying those concepts. Far from diminishing the music, it enhances our experience of the music by putting it into a broader context we can understand.
What could have been done better?
I think the staging could have been amped up further: we never felt like we were in a Damascus market or a Leipzig coffee house. More immersive projections, an enhanced set, and perhaps costuming could have further conveyed the cultural realities of the places they were taking us. A more explicit dramatic thread was ripe for the taking, too: we get snippets of journal entries and the like from individuals living at that time, but they could have been fleshed out further into an actual story.
Nevertheless, the experience gave me a deeper appreciation of the world at that time and music's place in that world. I left reflecting on a vivid and compelling peek into a world that was fresh and exotic and unexpected -- not the sort of thing one normally takes from an early music concert. Can such an approach be used with a Brahms symphony? Perhaps not. But it would sure be interesting to explore!