By Patrick Neas, The Kansas City Star
Coffeehouses were not invented in Seattle during the 1980s. In the 18th century, German hipsters would pack huge coffeehouses to hear orchestras made up of student musicians perform the latest hits of Georg Philipp Telemann and Johann Sebastian Bach. The early music orchestra Apollo’s Fire will re-create this lively scene Saturday with the Friends of Chamber Music’s program called “A Night at Zimmerman’s Cafe.”
Zimmerman’s Cafe, Leipzig’s renowned coffeehouse, was large and featured musicians performing some of the most brilliant music ever written.
“Coffee was incredibly popular and a huge thing in Leipzig,” said Jeannette Sorrell, harpsichordist and founder and conductor of Apollo’s Fire. “The number of coffeehouses was astonishing. And Zimmerman’s was a big place. Over a hundred people could fit in there. And we know from sketches and paintings of coffeehouses that a group of musicians would cluster around a harpsichord, with various people sitting at small tables or in rocking chairs enjoying the music.”
Apollo’s Fire, which Sorrell founded in 1991, is known for its creative concerts that explore interesting aspects of 18th century culture.
Its name comes from the Baroque devotion to Greek and Roman mythology. Pagan gods and goddesses permeated European culture almost as much as Christianity in the 18th century, and Sorrell drew on this fact when she named her ensemble.
“I know it sounds like a rock group,” Sorrell said, “but the name actually comes from the Greek god of music who also carried the sun across the sky in his golden chariot. So our logo has the sun in it, and the sun is fire, and a lot of people say we play with fire.”
Apollo’s Fire derives a lot of its warmth from European folk music, which the group often intersperses in its performances. It sounds natural to hear folk music side by side with Baroque music since composers from Bach to Jean-Philippe Rameau drew on the popular dances and vital music of the peasantry for inspiration.
“I think we’re probably one of the few established Baroque orchestras that has a folk music wing,” Sorrell said. “But I think overall the biggest thing that distinguishes Apollo’s Fire would be our approach to Baroque music, which is very much based on the idea of ‘affekt,’ which is what music writers of the 17th and 18th centuries talked about all the time. The idea that the role of the performer is to move the ‘affekts,’ the affections or the emotions of the listeners.
“With each phrase of music we try to be really conscious of what is the mood or the emotion of the phrase or movement and of the piece. So we play in a very expressive and gestured way. Each of the musicians has been hand-picked for those qualities. It’s a considerably more animated performance style than you would find with other orchestras.”
“A Night at Zimmerman’s Cafe” will feature music by the two biggest names in German music in the 18th century: Telemann and Bach.
“Both Telemann and Bach at different times were directing a concert series at Zimmerman’s coffeehouse,” Sorrell said. “The student orchestra of Leipzig, which Telemann founded while he was a student at the university, would play there. The group was made up of his student friends, and they did many concerts until Telemann left and went to Hamburg. Eventually Bach came along and became the director of this student orchestra. He continued the tradition of doing concerts at Zimmerman’s, mostly performing his own music but also some of Telemann’s and some of Vivaldi’s.”
Telemann is considered one of the most prolific composers in history and in his day was known all over Europe, writing for both the court and opera house. Bach, meanwhile, happily toiled away as a church musician for the greater glory of God.
“They were quite close colleagues and friends,” Sorrell said, “but Telemann was much more famous and successful. It’s because his music is much lighter and more accessible. You can hear it once and immediately enjoy it and it’s easy to play.
“Bach’s music was considered overly complicated, overly difficult, too heavy. He was criticized right and left. It’s fascinating to see how tastes have changed over time because today, of course, Bach is by far the more famous and respected of the two.
“This concert will give people the chance to hear both of them in the context of music that was played for fun in a coffeehouse in the 18th century, and people can decide for themselves which they prefer.”
Among the Bach pieces the group will perform is the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, which is basically a dazzling harpsichord concerto. “It is probably the most virtuosic piece in the harpsichord repertoire,” Sorrell said.
“I’ve played it many, many times, and I’ve recorded it, but every time I play it, it’s an emotional journey, a mountain top experience. Bach takes the harpsichordist through several different roles throughout the piece. During parts of it you’re just playing accompaniment, and in other parts you’re playing chamber music in dialogue with the flute and the violin. And then there’s the famous cadenza, which is extremely long, where you’re just contemplating the universe.”
The concert will also include music by Antonio Vivaldi, a composer whom Bach admired greatly.
“Bach would study Vivaldi’s violin concertos, and he often transcribed them into harpsichord concertos, so that he could play them or his sons could play them,” Sorrell said. “We’re pretty sure that these transcriptions of Vivaldi were performed at the coffeehouse. We’re playing a concerto grosso by Vivaldi. It’s kind of a showpiece for the group, and we play it from memory.”
Sorrell hopes the audience will loosen up for this performance and get into the coffeehouse spirit. “In paintings of these coffeehouses it looks as if people are talking during the music,” she said. “So we would like to encourage our audience to feel free to comment to their neighbors if they hear something they like or they don’t like.”
Talking during a concert? This could cause a serious case of culture shock for the Friends of Chamber Music, whose president, Cynthia Siebert, is known to abhor noise during concerts and even provides the audience with cough drops in a special paper that doesn’t make crinkling noises when it’s unwrapped.
“It’s OK,” Sorrell said. “It’s a different etiquette than what people are used to today, but this music was not meant to be performed in a completely formal environment. There was no wall between the performers and the audience. People were sitting in chairs and rocking chairs, and dogs were running around right next to the musicians.
“I think that if we want audiences to attend classical concerts, especially younger audiences, we have to take the music back to the kind of experience it was meant to be, which was not this stuffy, formal thing. It was meant to be lively, exciting and fun.”
Read more here: http://www.kansascity.com/2012/10/13/3862929/apollos-fire-brews-up-a-treat.html#storylink=misearch#storylink=cpy