Chelsea Music Fest fetes Finns, leaves you ‘Hungary’ for more
BY SEAN EGAN | Since its inception in 2010, the Chelsea Music Festival (CMF) has been steadily gaining ground as must-attend event for serious music lovers. Using local landmarks such as St. Paul’s Church (315 W. 22nd St.) as performance venues, the Festival brings world-class music from around the globe to New York City. With events ranging from galas, to late night shows, to family friendly activities, there’s something for everyone. This time around however, as the Festival enters its fifth season, its focus has turned to the music and culture of Hungary and Finland.
“The Chelsea Music Festival highlights a different theme every year, a choice that is often based on composers’ anniversaries” said Artistic Directors Ken David Masur and Melinda Lee Masur in a conversation with Chelsea Now. They note that this year, in particular, they are celebrating the 150th birthday of the influential Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius. As for Hungary, the focus will be on works from a handful of masters, including Béla Bartók, Ernö Dohnányi, Zoltán Kodály, Joseph Joachim and Karl Goldmark.
But why Finland and Hungary of all places? “The juxtaposition of the two cultures as well as their shared linguistic heritage,” assert the artistic directors.
In order to pay tribute to these unique musical cultures, the Masurs set out to assemble a program of diverse and talented musicians from abroad — the first of which is the Avanti! Chamber Orchestra, whose members will kick the Festival off at June 12’s Opening Night Gala. Avanti!, who describe themselves as “an ensemble consisting of anything from a single player to a symphony orchestra,” that “operates freely over different eras and genres” was selected to be CMF’s Ensemble-in-Residence this year.
The Masurs recalled that they wanted to offer the ensemble the position after they “Witnessed the Avanti! Chamber Orchestra in their native Finland and were thoroughly taken by their fiery music making and unorthodox interpretation,” back in 2009. “Each concert with Avanti! promises to be a breath of fresh Finnish air,” they assure, including their participation in a June 13 “Fiddle Off,” and June 15’s “Carte Blanche” evening.
One of the most interesting acts booked for this year’s CMF is Loop Doctors. Representing a slight (or perhaps drastic) change of pace from the classical music and jazz that dominates the program, the Loop Doctors offer something different, and a little difficult to peg down. The Masurs describe the group’s sound as “A medley of different styles, including jazz, drum ‘n’ bass, jungle, hip-hop and rap. An overall category could be nu-jazz, but Loop Doctors can also be seen in clubs, where people actually dance to the music.”
The group is set to play on June 19, at what is known as the “Late Night” event, which serves up a “cutting-edge take” on the festival’s theme. The Doctors’ distinctive brand of trippy, funky, infectious music, especially as joined by saxophonist Chris Hunter, certainly fits this bill. “For this concert only, Loop Doctors will prepare four pieces from well-known Hungarian contemporary composers and add their distinct electro-drum’n’bass-jazz touch to the compositions,” guarantee the Masurs.
Equally diverse and talented performers populate the rest of the festival, from The Lee Trio (a group comprised of three string-playing sisters, including Melinda Lee Masur) to the Santa Diver Trio (spearheaded by jazz-violinist Luca Kézdy). But the festival’s celebration of Finnish and Hungarian culture extends even further than the music — various events also feature authentic cuisine courtesy of Sami Tallberg and Carl Frederiksen, Culinary Artists-in-Residence.
Closing out the festival on June 20 is Tuomo Uusitalo, a Finnish jazz-pianist who, as of 2012, has called New York City his home. Approached to arrange and perform some works by Sibelius himself, Uusitalo notes, “It’s a great thing for me to arrange some of his music for the festival, which I wanted to do already for a while.” He’ll be joined by bassist Myles Sloniker, and, at the request of the Artistic Directors, by Finnish drummer Olavi Louhivuori — “Which is great because I’ve been a big fan of all of his music for years and years,” Uusitalo divulges.
In arranging Sibelius’ music to suit his jazz style, Uusitalo tries to find pieces that touch him personally, and then, “try to keep the real essence of what he really meant.”
“Most of Sibelius’ music is very, in a positive sense, nationalistic,” he says, noting, “There are a lot of strong feelings about what it means to be Finnish,” and he wishes to capture that feeling, and the feeling of nature, both calm and harsh, that his music evokes. In addition to Sibelius pieces, Uusitalo plans on performing some original music as well as jazz standards, perhaps including works by famous Hungarian composer of popular songs, Sigmund Romberg.
Ultimately, the Artistic Directors see the Festival as an event that will enrich the lives of Chelsea residents, which they refer to as “one of New York City’s most dynamic neighborhoods,” which possesses a “creative spirit.” Their eagerness to take advantage of “the unique spaces including intimate art galleries, former warehouses and beautiful historic churches” to present site-specific work, and their excitement over being able “to contribute to the fabric of the community through family events, outreach and education events at schools and other public spaces,” speaks to the special appeal that Chelsea, and New York as a whole, has for artists, and why festivals like CMF are able to thrive.
Uusitalo also speaks eloquently of the city’s unique appeal. “There is no other place like New York,” he says of his adopted home. “I think there never was another place that was so full of jazz — especially jazz, but also other culture. You can find, you know, all kinds of stuff. It seems like in New York you have more of everything.” And when events as exciting and illuminating as the Chelsea Music Festival happening regularly, it’s hard to disagree with him.
The Chelsea Music Festival happens June 12–20, at venues including Canoe Studios, St. Paul’s German Lutheran Church, Scandinavia House, Leo Baeck Institute, Norwood, and Finnish Lutheran at St. John’s Church. Tickets range from $8-$68. Discounts available for people under 30 and seniors, with ID. For reservations and a full schedule, including info on free events, visit chelseamusicfestival.org. Twitter: @cmf_nyc. Also see facebook.com/chelseamusicfestival.