When I found out that an ambitious new music festival in New York, the Chelsea Music Festival, was honoring the 150th birthday of Claude Debussy, I was intrigued to learn that the celebration would feature a performance at the Leo Baeck Institute at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan.
Debussy — his high-strung, artistic, rich and Jewish second wife notwithstanding — associated himself with France’s anti-Semitic right wing, and openly mocked Edvard Grieg when the Norwegian composer’s outrage at the Dreyfus affair moved him to forbid performances of his compositions in France. So featuring his music at the Leo Baeck Institute seemed a bit, well, outré.
Still, Debussy was one of the most influential composers of the last century, and this promising program sandwiched his work between two composers of Jewish origin: Darius Milhaud and Felix Mendelssohn. It also included the pro-Dreyfus Maurice Ravel, as well as the world premiere of a new work by the contemporary Japanese composer Somei Satoh, who was born in Sendai, the epicenter of the recent earthquake/tsunami disaster.