United States Debussy’s String Quartet: A Sensorial Concert: Adam von Housen and Charlotte Munn-Wood (violins); Pedro Vizzarro Vallejos (viola); Liz Kovalchuk (cello); Whitney George (music director). Brooklyn Academy of Music, Fisher Hillman Studio, Brooklyn, NY. 09.12.16 (KG)
Before Debussy’s brilliantly luxurious string quartet began, the concert experience started with a blindfolded, sensory indulgence. In the elevator up to the BAM Fisher Hillman Studio, listeners were offered a handmade chocolate cube with the instruction to let it dissolve in the mouth. This was how we should approach the whole evening: “Just let it happen,” said the elevator operator (who also turned out to be the confectioner).
Once in the studio, we were briefed and blindfolded by chaperones—30 dancers who would guide us through the one-on-one “sensorial concert” experience. Questions were welcomed, but after the advice of the elevator operator confectioner, they were tabled in favor of remaining in the dark. As it turned out, the performance by the London-based dance company Bitter Suite (with New York musicians under the guidance of composer Whitney George) was a sensory overload in all aspects—but sight. We were gently pulled, tapped and made to sway. We were fed dabs of jelly, a Pop-Rocks and truffle concoction that caused micro-explosions in the mouth, a chewy thing made with baobob fruit which the confectioner (in a talk after the performance) confessed wasn’t “meant to be delicious.” We were draped in scented cloths and sprayed with perfumed water. We were, in a word, indulged.
In 2017, Bitter Suite will debut a new work using brooding Beethoven and Janáček, but Debussy seems a more natural fit for the company’s talents. Taking a cue from the impressionists (although he rejected the term), Debussy sought to create airiness, music perhaps less focused than that of the Austrian and German composers who had so dominated the 19th century. In 1893, he premiered his String Quartet in G minor, quizzically the only work to which he gave an opus, No. 10. Though barely 30 at the time, the composer introduced the unusual conception of harmony and chordal structure he would pursue throughout his life, and won both admirers and detractors. One critic famously called the quartet an “orgy of modulation.”
But back to Bitter Suite’s hedonistic extravagance, which didn’t quite follow the indulgence of the changing keys. The dancers’ movements were strictly choreographed and no more personal than the “laying on of hands” of a reiki session. The movements were, at times, designed to catch the audience off-guard.
To say that the musicians assembled played beautifully would be a bit of guesswork, under the immersive circumstances. The music and the gusatory/olfactory design were all completely satisfying, and my chaperone, the New York-based dancer Gina Ricker, made the evening as fun as it was mysterious. On the way to the performance, I imagined being treated to a visit to Debussy’s salon; what I got was a journey into his dreams.