“Intimate” was the word used by Somei Satoh, the Chelsea Music Festival’s revered Composer in Residence, when I asked him what he thought of the space in which his composition was performed on Friday night. A precise sentiment, and one that felt indicative of the Chelsea Music Festival as a whole, on its sold out opening night at the Eyebeam Art and Technology Center. “Intimacy,” between the art disciplines, between the artists, between the artists and their audience, and the spaces in which they interact–both physically and thematically–was felt most definitively on Friday. That, and appreciation, which is what Mr. Satoh noted as one reason for his enthusiastic participation in the festival. “New York City audiences are always the most appreciative.” This is certainly true of those attending CMF, which is enjoying greater success in its third annual season than ever before, having been chosen as the NY Times Editor’s pick for the summer festivals of 2012, who called it a “gem of a series.”
What sets CMF apart from other classical music series is its insistent focus on a fusion between the arts and the outside world–in Friday’s event’s case, the world of water. Claude Debussy is the central “protagonist” of this year’s festival, which also highlights the Japonisme movement by which he was so affected. During the performances a large projection of Hokusai’s famous woodblock print “The Wave” hung as a backdrop, having been the cover of Debussy’s score La Mer, perhaps his most celebrated work. The massive and emotionally turbulent painting felt natural in the space of the Eyebeam Center, which is currently hosting an exhibit called “Surface Tension: The Future of Water.” Large instillations with titles like “Tele-Present Water” and “Hydrocordion” hung suspended from the naked, rugged rafters, surrounding the audience and permeating their musical experience with an awareness of the imminent, and the science that propels us forward, inevitably.
As the musicians entered and exited the stage, they walked in front of a massive blackboard, with a diagram in white chalk that outlined the life lived by drinking water, between the basin and the bottle. The sight was captivating in its unexpectedness: crisp tuxedos in their black and white precision, lights glinting off the gentle maple curves of the string instruments, and the red sequined blouse of violinist Fanny Clamagirand, CMF Artist in Residence, sparkling against the crude blackboard.
Ken David-Masur, the festival’s founder and Artistic Director, said that he knew even in the embryonic stages of brainstorming that he wanted to use the Eyebeam Center as a space for performances. “It just has the rawness we were looking for.” And impeccably, strategically raw the evening was, from the opening flute performance, to the twenty-foot canoe inhabiting a corner of the gallery, to the perfectly pink tuna served at the reception by Culinary Artist in Residence, Lance Nitihara.