More than Music at the Chelsea Music Festival

Makoto Fujimura refers to his art as “visual jazz.”

The son of a research scientist, Fujimura was born in Boston and spent bits of his childhood in Sweden, Japan, and New Jersey. In each place, he found common ground with the arts.

“Music and art always remain this universal language that I can tap into,” says Fujimura, the Visual Artist-in-Residence for the Chelsea Music Festival, a celebration of French composer Claude Debussy and the French-Japanese artistic connection. The festival began June 15 and runs through June 23 at ten different venues throughout Chelsea.

Why does a music festival need a visual artist?

Chelsea Music Festival, Makoto Fujimura, NYC, Japanese artists, Lance Nitahara
Makoto Fujimura (from his website)

As an artist and a painter, Fujimura considers art as a collaboration with music, and the materials of that collaboration are made from nature.

“I do have organic elements that very much relate with music,” says Fujimura. “There’s definitely a kinship there [between art and music], and when you talk about Debussy, I see color in sound.”

At its core, the Chelsea Music Festival pays homage to the 150th anniversary of Debussy’s birth, but with the inclusion of Fujimura as Visual Artist-in-Residence and Chef Lance Nitahara as the festival’s first-ever Culinary Artist-in-Residence, CMF is about so much more than music.

Ken-David Masur is the Artistic Director of the Chelsea Music Festival with his wife, Melinda. As musicians – Ken-David is the Principal Conductor of the Munich Symphony and Assistant Conductor of the San Diego Symphony; Melinda is an accomplished concert pianist – they knew they wanted the theme of this year’s CMF to have something to do with Debussy. Masur has a special affinity for France, as one of his first jobs was as the conductor of the national orchestra in Paris.

“And at the same time, I’m half Japanese, so I’ve always loved both cultures; I love the aesthetics of both cultures,” says Masur. “Debussy brings all of our backgrounds in terms of our interests together because of his choice of the Hokusai print for his score of La mer,” referring to “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” Japanese ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai’s most famous print, which influenced Debussy while he composed this orchestral piece.

Debussy had done more than one hundred years ago what the Chelsea Music Festival is doing this week, bringing the visual arts into music. It’s a happy accident for the Masurs that this year is not only Debussy’s 150th birthday, but it also marks the 100th anniversary of Japan’s gift of cherry blossoms to New York.

Chelsea Music Festival, Makoto Fujimura, NYC, Japanese artists, Lance Nitahara
Ken-David Masur (center) addresses the audience at the Chelsea Music Festival's Family Event

In addition to bringing visual artists such as Makoto Fujimura, Morgan O’Hara, Joshua Clayton, and Brent Everett Dickinson into the fold, Masur has added a culinary element to the festival by naming Chef Lance Nitahara Culinary Artist-in-Residence.

“No one’s ever had that – that I know of – in the context of a music festival,” says Masur. “What that meant for us conceptually speaking was we wanted to treat this artist [Nitahara] similar to all the other artists, which basically meant collaborating.”

Chelsea Music Festival, Makoto Fujimura, NYC, Japanese artists, Lance Nitahara
Chef Lance Nitahara demonstrates a croque monsieur with a Japanese twist

Chef Nitahara, the winner of Food Network’s show Chopped, is tasked with providing the artists’ lunches as well as creating high-end fusion cuisine for the five different themed receptions throughout the festival. By coincidence Chef Nitahara’s favorite types of cuisines are French and Japanese, and he put that to use as he taught children how to make croque monsieur with yakitori at CMF’s first family event.

“We create programs that we treat like canvases,” says Masur. “We want each canvas to be painted not by one painter, but by many painters with different styles and brushstrokes, but with a common theme. We want these collaborations to happen and for people to find each other in this theme and to build relationships through the theme.”

Fortuitously, Fujimura had already begun the collaboration process with pianist Molly Morkoski on Preludes by French composer Olivier Messiaen before Masur approached him about CMF. For the program, Fujimura uses a type of Japanese silk that is no longer being made, emphasizing Fujimura’s view of the importance of indigenous cultures and the preservation of cultures.

“The images are natural, but they are a little haunting,” says Fujimura, who says the program, “adds a presence that’s conducive to thinking of music as a visual art.”

As a Japanese American and a New Yorker whose studio was ten blocks away from the World Trade Center, Fujimura says he can’t help but talk about the events of both 3/11 and 9/11. On a personal level, Fujimura says that his art has helped ground him and even offer healing in response to disasters, and that is reflected in his collaboration with Morkoski.

“It has a serious undertone, yet the collaboration is very playful,” says Fujimura. “Art can liberate and bring a certain perspective.”

“For us it was always about using music as just one way to express human relationships,” says Masur, “so the festival is helping us to do that in so many other ways.”

The Chelsea Music Festival has world and New York premieres by more than thirty composers, and Masur says that each program is specifically designed for its venue. While Fujimura and Morkoski’s event was already a work in progress, other artists are creating fresh compositions.

“In many cases the composers will write for a specific venue, and it can only work in that venue,” says Masur. “In other cases, pieces are being written as the artists have arrived, and during that two-week time that we are working, these things emerge.”

The Chelsea Music Festival is supported by the Japanese, the French, and the German consulates, and Masur is especially pleased the participation from Japanese groups in New York.

“I’ve been involved in the Japanese community ever since we moved here,” says Masur. “To have all of these organizations like the Japanese Embassy, the Nippon Club, collaborate . . . is fantastic.”

The German consulate, which supported the first Chelsea Music Festival in 2010, continues to help bring German artists and musicians to New York, and Masur hopes the Japanese consulate will follow this lead.

“After this, we hope the Japanese community or the Japanese consulate will continue to bring and highlight a musician from Japan every year because the festival also is about highlighting rising stars, giving them a chance in New York and being exposed.”

The Chelsea Music Festival continues through Saturday, June 23. For a full list of programs, artists, and venues, and to purchase tickets, visit the Chelsea Music Festival’s website.