The Villager: Chelsea Music Festival beckons you to hear, taste, see ‘Bach 333’

June 6, 2018

Composer-in-residence Aaron Jay Kernis will have the New York premiere of his piece “First Club Date.” | Photo by Richard Bowditch

German composer Johann Sebastian Bach was not afraid to take on one of the most controversial beverages of the 1700s: coffee.

Indeed, the master addressed the stimulant in one of his secular works known as the “Coffee Cantata,” in which a father beseeches his daughter to forsake the caffeinated drink.

Fittingly, the “Coffee Cantata” will be performed at Counter Culture Coffee — the nationwide specialty coffee roaster’s training center at 376 Broome St. — as part of the Chelsea Music Festival (June 8–16). Now in its ninth season, the festival celebrates the composer and his 1685 birth year with the theme “Bach 333.”


Bass-baritone Mark Uhlemann said the Chelsea Music Festival takes classical music seriously but still makes it accessible. | Photo courtesy of Chelsea Music Festival

Singer Mark Uhlemann, a bass-baritone who also works for Counter Culture Coffee, said the festival, while being serious about classical music, also makes it more approachable.

“We’re going to serve coffee for one thing,” he said, noting that in addition to the tasting, there will be a discussion of coffeehouses during the 18th century.

The cantata, he explained, was originally performed in a coffeehouse and that “a little bit of the coffee atmosphere will add to the experience.”

Uhlemann added, “What they do is super-interesting. I love when people bring classical music to alternative venues.”

The “they” is wife-husband team Melinda Lee Masur and Ken-David Masur, the Chelsea Music Festival’s founders, who also serve as its artistic directors.

“We’ve specially gone into unconventional spaces for our venues,” Melinda Lee said.

Ken-David added, “We want to make sure our programming is varied and customized to venues.”

Since 2014, the festival’s headquarters has been St. Paul’s German Lutheran Church (315 W. 22nd St., btw. Eighth & Ninth Aves.).

“We are trying very hard to open our church to our neighborhood and being the home base for the festival is a great way to reach out to the community, and share the delight of music and community amongst one another,” the church’s pastor, Miriam Gross, said.

Gross noted that Bach was a Lutheran and his music is often used for the church’s services.

“This is a perfect match,” she said.


The General Theological Seminary will host Matt Haimovitz’s “Overtures to Bach’s Cello” on June 13. | Photo by Ryan Muir

Gross, like everyone else Chelsea Now interviewed by phone on Fri., June 1, had praise for the Masurs and the festival — which seeks to connect music, the visual arts and food through various events, concerts, lectures, and walking tours — saying the concept “is a beautiful way of reaching people of all ages.”

Festivalgoers can “hear,” “taste,” and “see” at events.

“Things are visually pleasing, things are acoustically pleasing, and tasting things that are pleasant and enjoyable,” Chef Eric Takahashi, who is this year’s culinary artist-in-residence for the festival, said. “It’s a very sensory-heightened collaboration.”

Takahashi, whose culinary background is German cuisine, said he would be making a traditional dish called sauerbraten.

“We try to pick themes that are fun for our artists and our artists-in-residence,” Melinda Lee explained.

Ken-David said that people love Bach’s music and the festival is “trying to make that come alive for all ages.” He noted the theme’s subtitle (“Master of Adoration, Variation, and Transformation”) as avenues that the artists could also explore.

Aaron Jay Kernis, this year’s composer-in-residence for the festival, said, “Bach is more than a favorite composer — he is the towering figure in Western musical history.”

Kernis said that he either plays or listens to Bach regularly, and was “thrilled” to be a part of the programming the Masurs had created. One of his pieces, “First Club Date,” will make its New York premiere at “Dances to Eternity — Bach Trinity Cantatas III” on Tues., June 12 at St. Paul’s.

Melinda Lee said one of the highlights of the festival will be the Sat., June 9 event, “333 Minutes of Bach — Master of the Banquet” from 6-11:33 p.m. at St. Paul’s. She explained that there is also a play on “three” — there will be three walking tours, a triple concerto, and the aforementioned 333 minutes of Bach. She noted Bach wrote hundreds of chorales, and said that at 3:33 p.m. on some days during the festival, they will be performed.


Violist Jesus Rodolfo is performing in the festival for the third time, June 8 at St. Paul’s German Lutheran Church. | Photo courtesy of Chelsea Music Festival

Jesus Rodolfo, who plays the viola, will be performing at four events this year — his third time taking part in the festival.

“It’s kind of intergenerational so there’s an energy between the artists and the audience… it makes the music and the art blossom,” he said.

The festival closes on Sat., June 16 at St. Paul’s with “The Poetry of Jazz — Helen Sung with the Words of Bach and Gioia.”

“[The Masurs’] vision is so unique and fun and engaging and inclusive in an organic way,” said Sung, a jazz pianist and composer.

Sung, who was classically trained, said Bach was a major figure in her musical life, and she will be performing her original arrangements of Bach as well as “Sung with Words,” which is a collaboration with poet Dana Gioia.

She said, “I hope the music is life-affirming and joyous.”

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Composer-in-residence Aaron Jay Kernis will have the New York premiere of his piece “First Club Date.” | Photo by Richard Bowditch


A past Chelsea Music Festival performance at St. Peter’s Chelsea. This year, the iconic W. 20th St. church is one of three local religious institutions serving as a venue. | Photo courtesy of Chelsea Music Festival


Music might be the food of life, but the Chelsea Music Festival also has actual food to offer. June 16’s “Bach’s Birthday Banquet” event at St. Paul’s German Lutheran Church features a special pre-concert curated dinner. | Photo courtesy of Chelsea Music Festival



READ AT: The Villager

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