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Kafee mit Sterblichkeit

EMV BachFest's baroque sampler, sacred and secular, @ Christchurch 

Baroque barista: "You want some Schlag mit dat?" Image: Holbein

As we hurtle towards Canada's October 17th  tryst with D (for Doobie) Day, when recreational cannabis becomes notionally legal nationwide, consider the socio-cultural fallout in the not-so-distant past when another psychotropic drug – coffee – transitioned from a louche rarity to a mass-market comestible.

Just a few hundred years ago, the brew was known only as a medicinal potion in Yemen and Ethiopia. Then, in the span of a generation, it became the court beverage of the Ottomans, the toast of Paris salons, a staple of Viennese street fairs and waterfront dives in Marseilles.

In London coffee houses won fame as “penny universities,” eclectic centres of intellectual and entrepreneurial ferment. Prototypical LLC’s like the British and Dutch East India companies began as ad hoc compacts among hyper-caffeinated mercantile coffee house habitues; even Lloyd’s of London started out as a City café.

In the genteel college town of Leipzig, Germany, music featured high on the menu at Zimmerman’s Coffee House . No longer the exclusive perk of nobles and churches, by the 17th and 18th centuries Art Music – particularly of the instrumental variety – was becoming accessible to the socially mobile burghers and intelligentsia of the High Baroque.

Georg Philipp Telemann first came to Leipzig’s prestigious university to study law; he stayed on to establish the city’s Collegium Musicum, where professionals and student amateurs pioneered new forms and styles of composition. Wednesdays and Fridays, performers and audiences alike came together for free concerts (what we might now call “jam sessions”) at Zimmerman’s.

But Teleman left Leipzig to make his name in the Big Time of the nascent music industry. Turning down the post of choirmaster at the city’s iconic Thomaskirche, he moved on to establish himself in the up-and-coming worlds of music publishing and opera. So city fathers had to settle for a less lustrous cantor for their church – one Johann Sebastian Bach, who also inherited direction of the Collegium Musicum.

Bach, devout and cerebral, was by disposition no gregarious coffee house boulevardier. Indeed he went out of his way to poke gentle fun at café society in one of his few secular cantatas. But he needed to carry on with the Zimmerman soirées in order to maintain the Collegium and recruit performers for his weekly church cantatas.

So he scheduled crowd-pleasing performances of his own instrumental works and those of his son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, as well as published scores by such operatic luminaries as Teleman, George Frideric Handel or the Italian grand master Nicola Antonio Porpora.

These five composers headlined the bill at EMV's “Zimmerman’s Coffee House” recital, featuring a quartet of soloists from B.C.’s own Pacific Baroque Orchestra (PBO). For an added touch of verisimilitude (and to somewhat soften the sacerdotal gravitas of the Christ Church Cathedral venue), EMV even treated the audience to limitless free dark roast (courtesy of Vancouver's Wicked Café).

The concert opened with a pair of Handel sonatas (one trio, one for flute), separated by a set of C.P.E. Bach harpsichord variations on La Folia d’Espagne. PBO director Alexander Weimann, hunched and jut-jawed over the double-manual of EMV’s faux-Taskin harpsichord, brought out the full folia of Carl Philipp Emanuel’s overwrought ornamentation.

Flautist Soile Stratkauskas, served up a lighter and sweeter dollop of coffee house music in the Handel pieces. She topped off her rendering of his op. 1 no. 7 sonata with a delightful kaffee mit schlag froth of an allegro.

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