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Music and Movement, Space and Sound

By Barrymore Laurence Scherer
11 Jun 2012

Alan Gilbert

When Alan Gilbert met the Park Avenue Armory, inspiration struck. Barrymore Laurence Scherer explores the result of this epiphany: Philharmonic 360, the fascinating program that will conclude the season in spectacular fashion.


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With its granite-trimmed brickwork and trio of castellated bays, its 19th-century period rooms designed by Herter Brothers, Stanford White, and Louis Comfort Tiffany, and its soaring Wade Thompson Drill Hall (named after the late industrialist who spearheaded its restoration), the Park Avenue Armory (on Park Avenue at 67th Street) notes that it was listed in 2000 by the World Monuments Foundation as one of the 100 Most Endangered Historic Sites in the World, along with Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat. In the last five years, this extraordinary building has been reinvented by a group of far-sighted New Yorkers as a unique cultural institution in which artists can create — and audiences can experience — unconventional work that could not be mounted elsewhere in New York City. Now in its second full season of programming, the Armory has become the place to see epic, immersive, and unexpected works in dance, theater, opera, video and installation art, and, of course, instrumental music.

In fact, from its start, the Armory’s Drill Hall — 55,000 square feet of unobstructed cast-iron construction inspired by the great 19th-century train sheds of Europe — has provided New York with an oversize home for large-scale musical performances. In May 1881 Leopold Damrosch, the German-born conductor and doyen of New York’s musical scene, produced New York’s first monster music festival. Marshaling 1,500 choral and orchestral musicians as well as the pipe organ moved from nearby St. Vincent Ferrer Church, this week-long cultural orgy featured the New York premieres of Anton Rubinstein’s “sacred opera” The Tower of Babel and Hector Berlioz’s Requiem, and reputedly attracted audiences of 10,000 for each performance. The following year, conductor Theodore Thomas trumped Damrosch when he deployed an orchestra and chorus of 3,300 for a program that featured the New York premiere of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. The gargantuan orchestras for both of these events included musicians from the New York Philharmonic and the New York Symphony, the two orchestras that would merge in 1928 to form the modern-day ensemble we all know.

Small wonder, therefore, that when New York Philharmonic Music Director Alan Gilbert entered the Armory for the first time, he was inspired to make it the scene of “a significant musical performance.”

“The moment I stepped into that Drill Hall, I started thinking about making use of its immense grandeur to build a program that would completely transform the audience’s conventional relationship with the orchestra and with the music,” he says. Almost immediately Mr. Gilbert envisioned the realization of a longstanding desire to present Karlheinz Stockhausen’s vast composition, Gruppen, composed between 1955 and 1957 and never before performed by the Philharmonic. Indeed, the work’s overwhelming magnitude probably militated against performances before the Armory proffered the ideal venue. On Friday and Saturday, June 29 and 30, at 8:00 p.m., that highly anticipated New York Philharmonic premiere will take place.

Armory President and Executive Producer Rebecca Robertson notes: “The brilliance of the Armory for the arts is that the artists can work in a space with no boundaries and no rules. We invite our artists to dream large and think out of the box. That was what Stockhausen was doing when he wrote Gruppen, and that is exactly what Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic are doing with a thrilling musical program that puts the audience at the center of the music in a way that they have likely never experienced before. It will be an unforgettable concert by New York’s own Philharmonic. We are thrilled by this collaboration.”

Gruppen is one of several Stockhausen works in which “a serial method … flowers into an organizing principle of remarkable breadth and pervasiveness,” according to the musicologist Arnold Whittall. The work is composed of groups (Gruppen, in German) of sharply defined orchestral timbres, dynamics, and noises that move slowly against one another like sonic tectonic plates. This resounding investigation of the limitless nuances and textures of massed instrumental sound requires not one but three orchestras and a trio of conductors. Sharing the conducting duties with Mr. Gilbert will be Magnus Lindberg, the Philharmonic’s Marie-Josée Kravis Composer-in- Residence, and composer-conductor Matthias Pintscher, in his Philharmonic conducting debut.

Stockhausen’s musical spaciousness — and the inviting space of the Armory — inspired Mr. Gilbert to place Gruppen in a provocative context of other works that explore analogous spatial ideas: Pierre Boulez’s Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna, Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question, and the celebrated ballscene concluding the first act of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Like a fine cognac, the scores by Boulez and Stockhausen demand plenty of room to breathe, and recordings can only suggest either work’s overwhelming effect in a live performance in appropriate surroundings. Boulez completed Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna in 1975 to commemorate the Italian composer and conductor. The piece — which is structured around a set of seven tones, corresponding to the seven letters of the name “Maderna” — is scored for a large chamber ensemble divided into eight groups that are placed widely apart. The groups comprise different instruments, so the timbre of each is noticeably distinct from the others, and each group but one is led by a percussionist who maintains the tempo, under the overriding direction of the conductor. Thus, the groups exhibit a bracing rhythmic independence from each other within the work’s musical architecture. For Mr. Gilbert, Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna “feels almost like a pagan rite exploiting the antiphonal effects of musicians placed in different parts of the performing space.”

Similarly, Mozart conceived the Don Giovanni ball scene around the contrapuntal effect of three separate instrumental ensembles simultaneously playing dance music in three different meters. In the meantime three groups of ball guests dance while two scheming groups of protagonists move about the stage – Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, and Don Ottavio plot to revenge themselves upon the rapacious Don Giovanni, while Don Giovanni lustfully contrives to abduct the peasant girl Zerlina to add yet another conquest to his catalogue. The Music Director has gathered a youthful cast of singers, all of whom will be making their New York Philharmonic debuts in these performances.

After Mozart’s uproarious climax, the Spartan textures of Ives’s The Unanswered Question will offer a comparative sense of spiritual release and skeptical alienation that will resonate poignantly beneath the Drill Hall’s arching roof.

To capitalize on the theatrical potential of such dramatic contrasts in such a dramatic setting, Mr. Gilbert has enlisted the visual artist and stage director Michael Counts to stage the Don Giovanni scene as well as the entire experience, from the entry of the orchestra to the complex physical transitions between works. New York City Opera audiences will recall the series of monodramas Mr. Counts produced there last season. However, he has specialized in large-scale, immersive installations and theatrical productions ever since he transformed an empty warehouse in Saratoga Springs into the Counts & Hammermill Performance Company in 1994. His recent work has included The Ride, a staged interactive bus ride through New York City, and So Long Ago I Can’t Remember, an adaptation of Dante’s Divine Comedy featuring 13 installations deployed over the 40,000-square-foot expanse of his GAle GAtes warehouse space in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood.

“My primary interest,” says Mr. Counts, “is in generating unforgettable theatrical experiences using untraditional methods in untraditional spaces.” Under his direction the characteristics of “spatial music” will undergo constant change as he “recalibrates variables over the course of the evening,” he says. He is also looking forward to “recalibrating the audience’s familiar experience of a concert by exploiting the odd and impressive character of the Armory Drill Hall.” He observes: “Every seating place there will offer a different perspective on the performance. And thus we hope to alter every listener’s performance expectations entirely.”

For Mr. Gilbert the concerts represent his continuing aim to have the New York Philharmonic offer undisputed repertoire classics in a manner that is not just musically distinctive but aesthetically stimulating. “As they arrive at the Armory,” he declares, “our audiences will be able to leave at the door any preconceptions they have about their spatial or even physical relation to sound.”

*

Barrymore Laurence Scherer, author of the awardwinning A History of American Classical Music (Sourcebooks, 2007), is a music and fine art critic for The Wall Street Journal and a contributing editor of The Magazine Antiques.




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