The Chelsea Music Festival is a placemaker. One doesn’t feel that they must speak a foreign language to read program notes or belong to a secret society to attend. The Festival’s “Hear, Taste, See” motto integrates senses and artistic disciplines, creating access points for every type of enthusiast. Beyond traditional concerts, there are family events, free open air performances, scholarly panels, and art gallery tours that provide playful explorations of the annual theme, this year “Measuring Time.” Underneath it all, however, are serious objectives. The Festival cultivates and shows off its namesake Manhattan neighborhood, promotes contemporary composers, provides a setting for emerging and established artists to connect, and gives audiences a friendly push outside the box.
This season, one of those pushes was a seated dinner “Measuring Time: a Menu Programme” as the first of three “Beethoven All Night” events at St. Paul’s German Lutheran Church on Saturday, June 10th, 2017. Tasting menus have long been part of programming, but this dinner was a Festival first. “There is often a sense hierarchy, with sight and hearing being privileged,” said Culinary Artist-in-Residence Allie Wist. “Taste and smell are two of our most powerful senses, and we want to elevate their place.” Chef Lance Nitihara from the Culinary Institute of America noted he is always measuring or racing against time in the kitchen, and Wist contributed her expertise with food history and production ecosystems to program the three tasty courses. She also had a hand in creating the tabletop decor of pocket watches, sand timers, and vases of pickled rhubarb.
The first course, Biding Time: Preservation, stopped time by pickling vegetables and a surprising apple kimchi. An Animal’s Life presented duck from three stages of its development: duck egg bearnaise, tender young breast, and mature duck leg were served alongside a farro porridge colored green from stinging nettles. Dessert, Earth’s Rotation: The Seasons, showcased fruits from all four seasons: meyer lemon pound cake represented winter, litchi sorbet summer, rhubarb fall, kumquat drizzle spring, and coconut for year-round climates.
The meal was delicious and a gateway to surprising conversations. Several guests discussed literature from different time periods; I discussed changes New York City has experienced in the past 40 years, and as my table mates were older than I, we compared seasons of life and even discussed personal religious evolutions. Wist introduced how each course illuminated an aspect of time, although I needed Chef to introduce the food instead of appearing at the dinner’s end. The dinner was special event, and guests went into the concerts with camaraderie and an awareness of historical context.
The Lee Trio opened the first program with Piano Trio in G Major Op. 1, No. 2 (1794/95). Lisa Lee built a vaulted ceiling on violin, buoyed by Melinda Lee-Masur on piano and grounded by Angela Lee’s sturdy cello. The trio infused just the right amount of Haydn into the early work, and let the Violin Sonata No. 10 in G Major, Op. 96 (1812) highlight Beethoven’s own mature voice. This sonata, dubbed the “anti-virtuosity” sonata due to historical drama and streamlined writing, inspired contemporary composer Tonia Ko to write Tribute (Axis II) as part of pianist Mimi Solomon and violinist Nicholas DiEugenio’s project “Unraveling Beethoven.” Solomon and DiEugenio commission contemporary composers to respond to Beethoven sonata pairings and “pull on a loose thread” to “undress and unravel” the expectations we have of canonized composers.
For Ko, the loose thread was the opening trill of Op. 96. She interpreted it as an intensified line that beckoned into the extremes of horizontal motion. Performed by commissioners Solomon and DiEugenio, the piece gestured to Beethoven using extreme registers and rhythmic snatches within foreboding extended techniques. Solomon switched between axes of the piano’s prepared innards and the keyboard; DiEugenio moved through various bow weights, trill speeds. Both distorted pitch and built to feverish horror flick melodies before an ending so abrupt it made the audience laugh. To finish the program, the Festival’s Ensemble-in-Residence the Verona Quartet played a Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 4 in C minor, Op. 18 of breathless pivots, drama, and icy hot precision.
The audience enjoyed a tasting reception of the seated dinner menu before heading into the evening’s final offering, “Beethoven’s Groove – Late Night Jazz with Helen Sung.” Sung, a classical turned jazz pianist and composer, brought Boris Kozlov on Bass, Henry Cole on drums, and the Verona Quartet for an irreverent program mashing Beethoven, jazz standards, and Helen Sung originals. One tune alternated distinct selections of classical Beethoven solo into jazz grooves. It was eclectic, experimental, and educational, much like the Festival itself. The Chelsea Music Festival’s good nature and lofty goals make it easy to enjoy music of any time.