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.
The three-year-old Chelsea Music Festival (CMF) turned out to be a most unusual and high-quality endeavor. This year it featured 13 events in seven venues, embracing and crossing numerous categories — old and new, east and west, music as well as visual art and even taste and fragrance. (CMF features a “culinary artist-in-residence” and a “themed” aroma sample — or “Air Sculpture®,” if you please — was inserted in the programs.) The Leo Baeck concert, however, was all about the music.
Opening the program was French-born Darius Milhaud’s 1923 jazz-inflected, joyous and humidly tropical “La Création du Monde” (The Creation of the World). Beautifully exemplifying the cross-cultural theme, Milhaud successfully wedded European baroque counterpoint with jazz rhythm and phrasing. It was atmospherically played here, not in the original version for chamber orchestra, but in a reduced suite for piano and string quartet, performed by the Momenta Quartet with Molly Morkoski testing the limitations of the Leo Baeck Institute’s not tremendously brilliant baby grand.
Noted young American baritone Thomas Meglioranza sang a group of Ravel and Debussy songs, accompanied by pianist Reiko Uchida. Though usually an elegant and exacting interpreter with a honeyed voice and impeccable diction in multiple languages, here he seemed a bit stiff and tentative. Although both of these French composers offer spectacular examples of cross-cultural influences, the choice here was songs of the antique, re-imagined.
CMF had commissioned from the composer-in-residence of this year’s festival, Somei Satoh, a new work, titled “SAGA,” for 11 strings. Deeply influenced by growing up next door to a Buddhist monastery, in recent decades Satoh has been given to few notes and much silence, all in slow tempos, frequently seraphic. Ken-David Masur, co-founder and co-director of CMF and who also happens to be the young son of Kurt Masur, conducted this quiet work with slow-breathed stillness, supply sculpting the sounds in and out of silence with a sure gracefulness that showed him to be a worthy heir to his father’s talent.
As superb as the whole program was, the best was saved for last: the ever-fresh Octet of Felix Mendelssohn, one of the greatest treasures of chamber music and astonishingly composed when he was only 15 years old. The performance here was among the most exciting, precise and vivid I’ve ever heard of the work. The spectacular young German violin virtuoso Augustin Hadelich led a deluxe ensemble of top-notch young musicians.
The deft and paradoxical balancing act in this composition of impetuous, headlong romantic rush with formal classical symmetry and delicacy, and also with some even more ancient baroque contrapuntal techniques, remains an inspiration to this day. Hadelich clearly relished the visceral rush of this music, so it is fortunate he has the musical chops to master whatever he has a mind to do. Matched and abetted by the others in this magnificent ensemble, the frequently breathless performance was exhilarating — a resounding affirmation of what the Leo Baeck Institute represents.