PHILHARMONIC 360: A World Away from Your iPhone
July 6th, 2012
Since attending the New York Philharmonic’s 360 performance at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan last weekend, a single question has taken hold of me: What message can the NY Philharmonic take away from its stunning 360 Program? Clearly there is a message. Two concerts with some fairly challenging repertoire were sold out three weeks in advance. The audience embraced the program enthusiastically. The last paragraph of Anthony Tommasini’s New York Times review phrased it well: “If only programs like this one were regular offerings, not just ambitious special projects.”
My belief is that this is the most important message for the joint committee of Lincoln Center and NY Philharmonic board members charged with creating the vision and strategy for the redo of Avery Fisher Hall. (I must confess that I am a member of this committee.) We have the opportunity in redoing the hall to ensure that programs like the Philharmonic 360 can become regular offerings, and thus attract an audience that is hungry for the spectacle and mystery embedded in such programs.
Last weekend’s spectacle unfolded immediately as we entered the massive 55,000 square-foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall, where we were greeted by live mannequins positioned against an illuminated red backdrop—the “mannequins” later turning out to be the actual cast of characters who would perform the final scene of the First Act from Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
When I interviewed Alan Gilbert for last month’s show on Linked Music, we talked about how he had visited the Armory and, upon seeing the cavernous space, was moved to conceive a spatial music project with Karlheinz Stockhausen’s rarely performed Gruppen as the centerpiece. Gilbert’s broad knowledge of contemporary as well as classical repertoire, heightened by his adventurous spirit and appreciation for irony, rounded out the program with works from Boulez, Mozart and Ives, with a special unannounced introductory savory in the form of a Giovanni Gabrieli canzon.
Back-lit stages for the three separate orchestras alternated with risers for the audience, as had been meticulously outlined in Stockhausen’s comprehensive plans for the staging of Gruppen. Some lucky audience members were seated on the floor in concentric rows around a central podium, recalling the “Rug Concerts” of Pierre Boulez’s tenure as Music Director in the 1970s. These “informal” concerts had been built around contemporary music programs as a means to attract younger audiences and involve them in the productions. At the Friday evening Armory concert, enthusiasts of all ages arrived dressed in everything from suits and ties to jeans and t-shirts.
As the house lights dimmed, Gilbert delighted his audience with the exquisitely performed Canzon XVI by 16th century Venetian master, Giovanni Gabrieli. An unannounced addition that certainly whet the palate, the twelve-instrument brass ensemble harkened back to Gabrieli’s own pioneering compositional career at the Basilica di San Marco, where he himself had experimented with specifically notated instrumentation, sonority, and antiphonal music to create majestic spatial effects.
Next came Boulez’s Rituel in Memoriam Bruno Maderna, which honors Maderna and supplied one of the evening’s delicious ironies. The premiere of Gruppen took place in the Rheinsaal of the Kölner Messe in Cologne on 24 March 1958 with the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Stockhausen (orchestra I), Bruno Maderna (orchestra II), and Pierre Boulez (orchestra III). At the Armory, Gilbert took to the center podium for the Boulez piece, conducting all eight ensembles in full 360°, awakening each island into its own flurry of calculated and sharply choreographed activity. A remarkable sense of primitive mystery was evoked by this piece, as though we were listening to separate tribes communicating in the jungle night.
When Gilbert conceived of the spatial music program, he included the finale from Act I of Don Giovanni because it was an opportunity to perform the work as Mozart had originally envisioned—three orchestras simultaneously performing a minuet, a contredanse, and a German dance. Following the intermission, the “mannequins” took their positions along the perimeter of the floor seating area until brought to life and song by the orchestras. Although the Armory’s cavernous interior made for a somewhat challenging acoustic situation, the audience nevertheless enjoyed the sheer spectacle of the singers and choir moving amongst them, adding to the night’s drama.
Stockhausen’s Gruppen, the highly anticipated cornerstone of the evening’s program, was designed for three completely independent orchestras as a complex study of dynamic sound quality in space. Alan Gilbert and the composer-conductors Magnus Lindberg and Matthias Pintscher exchanged glances across the space, gesturing at times whilst threading together Gruppen’s 174 musical units. The Philharmonic magically repainted the Armory space with Stockhausen’s ever-changing palate of sonic layers, volumes and rhythms, creating what Alex Ross once referred to in a past article for The New Yorker as his ”chaos of invention [communicating] an inexhaustible, almost childlike joy in the possibilities of sound.”
Gilbert brought us back full circle at the end, closing the evening’s performance and the NY Philharmonic’s 2012 season with Charles Ives’s masterpiece, The Unanswered Question. As the kaleidoscope of sound from the earlier pieces faded away, we were left with the simplicity and power of Ives’ own spatial project. It was an evening that celebrated the power of live music as a shared experience, a universe away from going solo with earbuds planted and an iPhone in your hand.
Camellia Tse contributed to this blog entry.
Photos courtesy of the New York Philhamonic: www.nyphil.org
To watch the full webcast of the New York Philharmonic’s 360 performance at the Park Avenue Armory last weekend, please click here: http://www.medici.tv/#!/new-