Photograph by Frederik Jaeger
Every year the Chelsea Music Festival explores the flavors, sights, and sounds of New York City through a series of concerts, art shows, and culinary experiences in unique venues throughout the Chelsea neighborhood. Now in it’s 10th season, the theme of the festival this year, 200° due Clara, which begins this Friday June 6th, will honor the 200th anniversary of the birth of Clara Schumann, a pioneering German musician and composer of the 19th century. Untapped Cities spoke with the festival’s co-founders and co-artistic directors Melinda Lee Masur and Ken-David Masur, a husband and wife team who have curated the festival for the past ten seasons, to learn more about the history of the festival and what special features are in store this year, in our latest NYC Makers profile.
If you are an Untapped Cities Insider, you can attend one of this year’s concerts for free! Insiders can register for a ticket to attend the GHOSTLIGHT Chorus performance on June 8th which will be followed by a late night jazz piano concert. Insiders will also receive a special 10% discount on tickets to any of the other Chelsea Music Festival concerts (excludes the June 8th performance). Not an Insider yet? Become a member today to gain access to free behind-the-scenes tours and access to special events all year long! Learn more and register for tickets if you are already an Insider, here.
Untapped Cities readers can also enter to win a pair of tickets to the June 8th concert by entering our giveaway here! A winner will be selected and notified Friday by 5:00pm.
Untapped Cities: What’s your favorite “untapped” spot in the city?
Melinda: I love returning to the grounds at the General Theological Seminary—a peaceful oasis in the middle of Manhattan. You kind of forget that you’re in the hustle and bustle of the city and there are little nooks and crannies on the grounds where you can sit and read or have a picnic. Every year we hold an event there, with the concert held in its chapel which has the audience facing each other as well as the performers. A really intimate space.
Ken: I think I have a couple. Melinda and I, we go out to the neighborhood after every festival and walk around to discover new (or new-to-us) spaces, and we’ve been able to add new venues to the Festival, and that’s been very exciting. We’ve been in over fifty venues over the course of ten seasons. One that’s new this year is a collaboration at the gallery Hauser & Wirth. We’ll have an event there in partnership with their current exhibit by the renown artist Lorna Simpson. Composer Jessica Mays has written a piece that is inspired by Lorna’s exhibit and it will be premiered on June 14th.
And then, as Melinda mentioned, sort of the reason why we loved from the very get go the idea of bringing the festival into the city was because of the combination of being in the big city but then also having these many pockets that are quite peaceful and reclusive. One of those places is the garden of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, which is another partner venue that we are returning to. It’s just a couple blocks away from the General Theological Seminary and they have this garden with an idyllic pathway between their rectory and chapel where you have to duck your head to get into doors and such things.
The General Theological Seminary, Photograph by Ryan Muir, courtesy of Chelsea Music Festival
Untapped: Jumping off of that, what is your criteria or process for picking venues for the festival?
Melinda: Well as you know, the festival merges three disciplines in the arts: the performing arts, the visual arts and the culinary arts. So we always try to find spaces where we feel like we can collaborate in those three dimensions, where the space lends itself to discovery and collaboration. And basic things we do when we go into a space are first test the acoustics and just see if we can picture music being made there. Then really practical things we ask about, whether they have a kitchen where our chefs can prepare, and so forth.
Ken: Melinda and I, we always look forward to walking through the streets of Chelsea. You know Chelsea is such a quickly changing neighborhood and you always have new venues popping up or repurposed venues and that’s been pretty amazing to see and be a part of. I think we walk into a space and let the space speak to us. And then because we deal with those three main areas when we create programming for the festival, we want range for the artists. For the composers, because we commission pieces, some composers we tell them, “Hey, we think that your work is going to be performed at this space.” So they can go visit it or they can imagine what kind of environment it’s in. Looking into spaces is exciting for us because they create sort of a canvas on which all of the artists can create and this is really site-specific programming. That’s what we’ve done from the very beginning. We really enjoy thinking about each space, the character and the personality, and then what kind of works and what kind of artists and visuals and smells would work the best in those spaces.
Sometimes it’s also a scene search. For instance we had a year when we did Great Britain and Italy, and we actually went to the Italian Academy at Columbia University to present an entire evening event there of music related to Italy and Great Britain and an art exhibit and a reception that was themed. We add venues that are in our opinion “untapped” for certain audiences. We realize in our programming that there are people who come to our events that have never been to a concert or there are musicians who have never been to an art gallery or never been to a culinary event. You have a mixture of a lot of these cross-cultured audiences and basically these venues are trying to accommodate that kind of approach to the programming.
Untapped: What places are on your NYC bucket list?
Melinda: This year we are celebrating the 200th birth anniversary of Clara Schumann, a prominent pianist and composer in her time, and in celebration of that we commissioned ten female composers to write works inspired by her and her legacy, but one of the events we wanted to put on for this year’s festival was a high tea. We’ve never done a real high tea in New York City, and obviously the Plaza Hotel has a great high tea, but we were checking out Lady Mendl’s Tea Salon down at Irving Place that I’d love to try one day. We also have young children and would love them to experience that too. That’s part of the reason we’ll be doing a special teatime at the Festival this year, during our first Family Event on Saturday morning, June 8th!
Ken: There are so many! I think, that in terms of bucket lists, New York is one of those places where the bucket list constantly grows. There have been places where we’ve wanted to go to and because now they don’t exist anymore you know we’ve been maybe once or twice to our favorite cafe or gelato place and all of a sudden it’s not there anymore. So I think that this is kind of also what makes our festival special, because we realized that some of the programs and events that will happen at the festival could be for the first and last time. This is the reason people have said this is a pop up festival, which is a very good description in a sense, people understand this is a short term thing, either you were there or you weren’t.
I think I don’t have a current burning bucket list though. It almost feels like every time we come into the city for the festival or during the year, we hear about something that’s going to happen and we say “Okay we have to do that.” It doesn’t matter if it’s a show or a theater piece, or a concert. Like the High Line. I think people that come to the festival go, “Okay there are certain things we know we have to check out in Chelsea.” I think the High Line is one of them. The High Line of course opened the first year we started the festival, 2010. They’ve been a wonderful neighbor to have. That was one on the bucket list.
Untapped: They are opening a new part of the High Line this year!
Ken: Yea, I guess you could add that to our bucket list!
Untapped: What makes New York City great to you?
Untapped: It’s a big question.
Ken: It’s a very big question!
Melinda: The people and ideas converging in such a concentrated amount of space, it’s pretty intense when you think about it. You know, you obviously have all the boroughs but, within each neighborhood you have so many things going on and so many new initiatives. I feel like it’s this sort of hub, or an incubator of new ideas and people who really care about their neighborhoods and communities too. It’s really exciting for us to always visit. Funny enough, we’ve never lived in New York city while planning the Chelsea Music Festival, we’ve always planned from afar, so when we actually come into the city we bring a lot of child-like curiosity and we’re checking things out. I think it keeps it really fresh for us.
Ken: Yea, I think to add to that, what we love and, you know, we did live in the city before we started the festival, Melinda and I met in the city on the Upper West Side, the energy and to some degree you’ve got to love the ability that New York City has and will continue to have going forward, of being able to surprise you. On a daily basis. Knowing that when you go there, all your senses are stimulated and it’s unpredictable. The unpredictability of it I think is, to a degree intoxicating. To some degree you are being hypnotized every time you step into New York City and I think that that quality of New York has informed some of our programming. I think Melinda put it better that because we’ve been planning the festival from mostly out of town, even though we go to New York monthly for concerts or meetings and such, our planning process of what we want to do with each year’s theme is sort of independent of all that is happening in New York and not too reactionary. We feel that we have a good distance from that whirlwind.
Melinda: And we have an incredible team on the ground. We can Facetime with them whenever needed.
St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Photograph by Ryan Muir, courtesy of Chelsea Music Festival
Untapped: On the flip-side, what would you change about New York City?
Ken: Well, I like things not too loud. So you know, New York at times can be quite loud I feel. I love it for the festival when I’m there, I’m totally into it and I want things to be highly stimulating. But we all know New York from the subway to just walking on the street…
Melinda: This is coming from someone who usually has earplugs in his pocket.
Ken: Haha, that’s right.
Untapped Cities: What projects are you working on right now?
Melinda: Obviously we are gearing up towards this year’s Chelsea Music Festival! Again it’s the 200th anniversary of Clara Schumann and so it’s always really fun to let your work and projects be anchored by composer anniversaries or sort of world events. Next year, 2020, is the big 250th Anniversary of Beethoven. My piano trio, The Lee Trio, we’re going to do a project where we are not only recording all the complete Beethoven piano trios, but we are commissioning composers to write in response to or inspired by Beethoven. So we’ll take that around the 2020-2021 season on tour. Then as sort of an offshoot of that we are going to be bringing Beethoven and these new pieces to Africa! We have this project called “Beethoven in Botswana” that we are really excited about. There isn’t a huge amount of classical music in Botswana now but there a lot of people there that really care about music and want kids and people to have exposure to it.
Ken: For me, I’m starting a new position in Milwaukee as the new Music Director of the Milwaukee Symphony and as part of that there’s a lot of great things happening in terms of programming. In addition, the symphony is building a new concert hall that is going to be opening in the fall of 2020, so next year. There’s a lot happening around that. That will also be why we are relocating from the east coast to what they call the third coast.
Untapped: Will you still be running the music festival from there?
Melinda: Yes it will be remote planning as usual.
Untapped: It’s the 10th year of the Chelsea Music Festival, do you have anything extra special planned for this year?
Melinda: Yea! As I mentioned before, because of the tenth season we wanted to ask ten female composers to write new pieces so there will be, these ten world premieres, among other world premieres. These ten really exciting composers range from young to old and we’ll be premiering them throughout the course of the ten days. It’s in response and inspired by Clara Schumann and her legacy as composer and a collaborator. We’re also doing this incredible dinner on June 12th. We’re partnering with Outstanding in the Field and they’re known for being this roving culinary experience where they take huge lays of land and do sit down dinners with up to 200 people. Ours will be scaled down a little bit given the space at the General Theological Seminary, but it will be sit down, three courses, the chef will be there preparing it in front of everyone and I hear it’s almost sold out. We’ve done sit down dinners before but this will be the largest one we’ve done scale wise. And in honor of collaboration, personal and professional, we’re also bringing on a husband and wife chef duo, Sawako Okochi and Aaron Israel, to curate our multi-course gala receptions on opening and closing nights of the Festival!
Ken: I think that in general, we’re very giddy this year especially with the topic of Clara Schumann creating this frame. The first season we celebrated her husband’s 200th anniversary and this season we’re celebrating hers and kind of taking on the subject of female artistry, but more importantly I feel what Clara Shumann did for generations to come. She enabled other composers, both female and male, to find their voice and encouraged them to really thrive and I think we are doing that with all of the collaborative programs we are doing and the commissions Melinda mentioned.
Another highlight is the Jazz finale on June 15th which will be led by the inaugural jazz artist from the 2011 Festival, John Patitucci. He’s coming back again with his wife and cellist, Sachi, and we’ve invited back several generations of jazz artists that have come to the Festival before like Helen Sung, Aaron Diehl, and percussionist Rogerio Boccato. It’s going to be truly an all star jazz finale event. They are going to bring their own Clara Schumann or classical inspired cross-over jazz to the program. It will be a very special one time event. In addition to that, Adam Birnbaum is returning with a duo program with his wife, pianist Katsura Tanikawa, for a late night event June 8th. I think the partnerships we’re having this year are exciting, especially with the Schumann Haus in Leipzig, which is where Clara and Robert Schumann first moved to and where they raised their kids. I was just there a few weeks ago to see the places where they welcomed people into their home, where they composed pieces that Melinda and I have performed together. There, they have a great mural by illustrator Diana Kohne who has given us permission to recreate that as a backdrop for our own family events in New York, so it will feel like we are in the home of the Schumanns. In addition to that partnership, as Melinda mentioned Beethoven, we are partnering with Beethoven-Haus Bonn and DHL Group for their BTHVN on Tour world-touring exhibition. I think it’s very special because this will be the very first time that one of Beethoven’s pianos will be on display in North America. It’s a facsimile of his Broadwood piano. This exhibit is currently at Disney Hall in LA and we will be the only East Coast stop. The Festival is really proud to present this exhibit.
Photograph by Christopher Lane, Courtesy of the Chelsea Music Festival
Melinda: I also want to mention we are super excited to have Julianne Swartz come as our 2019 Visual Artist-in-Residence. She’s this beautiful visual artist who created these sculpture vessels made out of ceramic and glass. She’s going to be drawing out resonant frequencies from these vessels and performing with two of our artists on June 13th. I think that will be really eye-opening. They’re going to be listening to and improvising with one another and interspersing that with some Bach that our two festival musicians, cellist Jonathan Butler and Violinist Mariella Haubs, will be playing. Julianne has been given a full-length exhibition in that space and it’ll be on exhibit throughout June and a bit into July.
Ken: That’s at High Line Nine, which is a new venue we are partnering with this season.
Melinda: We’ve also had a special opportunity to work with one of the non-profits in New York city. This year we partnered with Girls Inc NYC and they’re a group that’s vision is to empower young women in STEM and STEAM fields. We are putting a day-long event together for ten or so of these girls where we will have them meet with Julianne Swartz and learn about her life as an artist and meet with one of our composers as well and do some cooking with one of our chefs. It’s a really neat way to give back to the community.
Ken: We should mention one more thing we’ve been working on for several years and we thought the tenth season would be the right time to release it to the wold, which is our new record label, Chelsea Music Festival Records. We will basically release everything from the contemporary commissioned works that we’ve done over the years to live recordings of the festival as well as jazz and classical. The first recordings will come out this summer. The label is something we’re extremely proud of and we hope it will add a number of fantastic new creations to the line up.
Chris Kendall, Courtesy of artist Julianne Swartz
Untapped: Sounds like a lot of exciting and fun things are happening! Looking back, what projects are you most proud of from the past?
Ken: We should start a the beginning. The first season, Melinda and I, when we started with a weekend of events in 2010 at the Chelsea Art Museum, we said, “Look this is very exciting, but if people don’t come and if there’s no response, we can have a summer off.” But, because the response was so positive that people have encouraged us to do more of it, we decided to continue and so I think we’ve had some amazing things happen. Just seeing things on paper and in theory and then actually living them and seeing them realized, that never gets old to us.
Melinda: The program every year, when you see the scope and the range of things we’re programming, it’s inspiring for us. We’re humbled to be able to present that every summer to New York City. I feel like what I’m most moved by is the really robust internship program that we’ve formed through the Festival. Every year we have about thirty-five interns and volunteers who descend upon New York city. They can be high schoolers, university students getting school credit, or just retired people who love being around music and musicians. They really give the festival so much of this family feel. What we’ve heard from the interns is that they’ve learned so much in two weeks and they’ve gained this world of experience working alongside all our team leads in the different fields of audio/visual, hospitality, and operations. It’s really a moving experience for us to witness every year.
Ken: In the beginning of starting the festival, we really wanted this to be an experience for people, for us to be able to welcome friends and to come back to New York city where Melinda and I met and basically hang out and collaborate with all the great artist and creators we are lucky enough to be in contact with. I think the atmosphere is what’s most important. It’s less about the things we’re doing on paper and the programs people are enjoying, that’s one thing, but really the work that the team, the atmosphere of familiarity, and to a degree the moments when people forget they are in the crazy city of New York. To have moments that are really moving and profound and fun of course. I think that has been moving, as Melinda said, to us, and to continue to be part of that, because our kids have now grown up with it. We have two kids that were born right before the festival, and one during the beginning years of the Festival. For them to have grown up with it, is special to us.
Untapped: Outside of all the amazing things you guys are doing, what other projects in the city are exciting you right now?
Melinda: Gosh, there’s a lot.
Ken: There are a lot of things that are happening. We tend to hear from people who are involved that often come to the festival and say, “Hey you guys should check out this or that.” We have people from the backgrounds of the art world who invite us to exhibits and galleries in the neighborhood or at the museums and some of the new venues like National Sawdust and those kinds of areas. We’re always interested in things we may not actually be able to go to or be in touch with also, like the poetry and literary societies. unity around town so that’s something on our bucket list, making sure that we are in touch with that.
Melinda: It’s always really neat to see what the galleries have going on and also when the Whitney opened up down in Chelsea that was huge for us, to be able to see how they built that from the ground up, and obviously the High Line expansion. Then there’s always checking out new places to eat. We have our eyes on this new spot in Chelsea with Georgian food called Chama Mama and it just opened up. So we’re going to hit that right away!
Ken: That’s right!
Photography by Evelyn Troester Degraf Courtesy of the Chelsea Music Festival
Untapped: What advice would you give people starting their careers today, whether that’s just in general or careers in music?
Ken: I think it’s surrounding yourself with people who you feel like you can trust and who will give you good honest advice and will allow you to thrive with your gifts. Continue to find what you’re passionate about and what gives you joy. We want to make sure that, even with our programming, we want to make sure that it’s fun for us. This is natural for anyone. I think we can only program things each year that we feel strongly about, that will bring great joy to the people doing it and also the people who attend. To find that rhythm is not always easy because of course everyone faces hurdles. Starting out in the arts, if we just focus on the arts, nowadays, we see it more and more, the balance between what we believe we have in our creative DNA and this need we have to be different from others in order to have a niche of an audience. I think I would give the advice, as much as possible, try to find out what really makes you joyful, where you feel this is you and how you can sincerely connect and genuinely communicate that creation that you have to an audience without feeling the need to sell it in a way that creates false expectation.
Melinda: I think it takes awhile to figure out what you really love, what you love to play, what genre of music you really love doing and I think my advice would be to to figure it out and really do that. I feel like a lot of musicians feel like they have to do everything. Ken, your dad, my father-in-law [conductor Kurt Masur], would often give me the advice that your days are numbered and you can really only do so much, so you really need to find out what you love to do and do that. Really resist comparing yourself to other people and other artists because I feel like that’s an endless trap and it leads to a lot of dissatisfaction and discontentment. I think it blocks creativity too. Just be patient. You asked about other projects that we do and I think Ken and I really care about education. I have the privilege of working with kids at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute every summer, and just to be telling them, at a young age, to be patient. You will find what your niche is and your projects are, just keep cultivating your craft and curiosity.
Ken: I also think in some ways it’s who you’re trying to connect with. I think there’s some artists or people out there who believe “I’m going to be myself and I don’t care what anybody else thinks. I don’t care if i have an audience.” Which appeals to certain people and some of them will be successful with that, but I personally have learned that the balance of understanding your audience and what connects us all, what’s the universal thread we all have, is important. There are many things of course that strike us and the things that really push our buttons or strike a nerve with all of us is what we’re trying to get at. Ultimately, in the business of the arts we are giving people something that will live on in their memory. We are in the business of memory. This is why in the beginning of the festival we thought, “Okay, we don’t just want the aural sense, we want everything that you experience at the festival with all of the senses to point to the theme when you try to recall the experience.” This is why we aren’t just going to offer food but we are going to offer food that relates to the topic or the person you came to explore. That’s what we hope people starting out, thinking of their own initiatives and projects, have the freedom of doing and find platforms to do that with.
Untapped: Could you tell us one surprising thing about yourself?
Ken: Melinda why don’t you say something surprising about me and I’ll say something surprising about you.
Melinda: Alright! You’re a really great table tennis player. When Ken plays against me he plays usually with one hand in his pocket.
Ken: Oh my gosh. Um, there are really many things, I think what always surprises me is how good Melinda is at multi-tasking. A festival like this and three kids will teach you that. That’s surprising to me. Also another surprising thing about Melinda that is super surprising to me and is something that I hope to do with her more because she’s so good at it and I’m not, that is she’s a great salsa dancer.
Melinda: Oh my gosh.
Ken: Yes. That’s a very New York thing.
Melinda: When I moved to New York we were at the Copacabana every weekend.
Untapped Cities: Fun! What books are you reading right now or what music are you listening to?
Melinda: We’ve been reading all of the letters between Clara and Robert Schumann. We’ve been sort of immersed in that world for the last few months. What have we been listening to? This week we’ve been putting on Jamiroquai all the time on the car.
Ken: It’s very eclectic. Everything from renaissance, radio plays for the kids, new works that are being sent to us and recordings, contemporary artists and things that we might be working on for the festival. It’s a huge range. In terms of reading books, what’s in my bag right now, obviously for the upcoming theme is actually the wedding diary of Clara and Robert. They decided once they got married to have a marriage diary. They kept it going for four years. They were inspired by the Mendelssohns who did this for a few weeks for their wedding. They were close friends with the Mendelssohns, the great Felix Mendelssohn and Fanny. What they did is every week they would share their thoughts about one another and would write them, and would write who came to their house, what kind of concerts they went to, what they are composing, what kind of books they are reading, what are the kids doing, that Franz Liszt came to town and played at their house or that the Mendelssohns come or Brahms came. There’s a book now that has those four years worth of the marriage diary so I have that there. Of course also a book on Beethoven quotes just because we are gearing up for the preview of the exhibit. Melinda do you have anything?
Melinda: I think that’s good for now.
Untapped: You covered a lot! Thanks for taking the time to talk with us!
If you are an Untapped Cities Insider, you can attend one of this year’s concerts for free! Insiders can register for a ticket to attend the GHOSTLIGHT Chorus performance on June 8th which will be followed by a late night jazz piano concert. Insiders will also receive a special 10% discount on tickets to any of the other Chelsea Music Festival concerts (excludes the June8th performance). Not an Insider yet? Become a member today to gain access to free behind-the-scenes tours and access to special events all year long!
For all other Untapped Cities readers, you can enter to win a pair of tickets to the June 8th event by entering our giveaway here!