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NY Philharmonic 360 at the Park Avenue Armory

ny philharmonic gruppen park avenue armoryIn May 1882, conductor Theodore Thomas led the NY Phil in a landmark seven-concert festival at the Park Avenue Armory that included everything from Handel's oratorio Israel in Egypt, to excerpts from Wagner's then-new Ring. (You can view the program here.) For the occasion, Thomas supplemented the Phil's core orchestra with more than 200 additional instrumentalists, a 3,000-strong chorus, and more than twenty soloists. In his program notes, critic Henry Krehbiel claimed that these mammoth forces weren't about creating a sensation, but an effective and authentic artistic experience.

"In a city like New York," he wrote, "in which every want is met and every taste is gratified, festivals are only needed when they give that which is beyond the scope of standard concerts."

The same could be said of this weekend's NY Phil concerts at the Armory, nearly 130 years to day from their last appearance there. The program, dubbed Philharmonic 360, sought to take full advantage of the Wade Thompson Drill Hall's cavernous interior by presenting various examples of spatial music from the past four centuries, using separate ensembles to create a variety of antiphonal effects. Call it: Acoustic Surround-Sound.

The program was the brainchild of NY Phil music director Alan Gilbert, who has ended each of his first three seasons with ambitious semi-staged projects such as Ligeti's Grand Macabre (2010) and Janacek's Cunning Little Vixen (2011), galvanizing his reputation as both a champion of 20th century music and an advocate for hall-busting, visually arresting presentations. Unfortunately, I was out of town for both of those prior events, but made damned sure I was here this time around. 

new york philharmonic don giovanni park avenue armory
As in past Armory presentations, the huge arched space with its exposed steel girders made a powerful impression on the eyes - if not always on the ears, thanks to the drill hall's overly-resonant acoustic. To minimize the bounce, Gilbert, along with stage director Michael Counts, placed the orchestra on platforms around the hall, with the audience seated on alternating risers, as well as on low floor chairs in the center of the hall. On the whole, it worked.

The program - with one odd exception (two, if you count the unannounced Gabrieli fanfare that opened the concert) - focused on 20th century music composed with specific spatial considerations. Pierre Boulez's Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna (1975) breaks the orchestra up into eight carefully prescribed groups, each with its own seating chart to control the interplay of sound between them. Each of the eight groups, which were spaced around the hall, included at least one percussionist, playing a cornucopia of bells, gongs, wood blocks, and other devices that penetrated throughout the hall. The music, an elegy for one of Boulez's closest Darmstadt colleagues, was uncharacteristically somber in tone for this maverick composer who, when he wrote it, happened to be the NY Phil's Music Director.

The exception I referred to above was the finale of Mozart's Don Giovanni, which jarringly followed the Boulez. Using the flimsy justification of the three on-stage orchestras that briefly appear in this scene, the lame performance - with ladies in poofy Rococo dress and men stumbling up and down the stairs - was a total disaster. And, not just theatrically: you could barely make out the singers (taken from the Oratorio Society of New York and the Manhattan School of Music Chamber Choir), unless they were directly facing you. The Phil, in a weak-willed attempt to please everyone, satisfied noone: if you were there for the Mozart, you proabably hated the Boulez (and left at intermission.) And, while I like Mozart, this wasn't the right time or place.

ny philharmonic gruppen park avenue armory
Fortunately, the Phil redeemed themselves on the second half with their first-ever performance of Stockhausen's Gruppen (1957), one of the late composer's best-known works. No doubt their tardiness had to do with the particular diffuculties of staging this work in a traditional concert hall, which requires three separate orchestras (or "groups") each led by a separate conductor. Here, Gilbert was joined by composers Matthias Pintscher and NY Phil Composer-in-Residence Magnus Lindberg, both of whom led their groups with authority and confidence, much as Boulez and Maderna likely did when they shared conducting duties with Stockhausen at the work's premiere in 1958. The dense, primitive music - which erupts into near-chaos at points - employs many of the same swirling modulations Stockhausen would later become known for in his electronic compositions like Cosmic Pulses (which, btw, is coming to Alice Tully as part of this year's White Light Festival in October.)

The concert ended with Ives's Unanswered Question, using the same three stages as Gruppen with the famously-shrill flute quartet placed in the center of the hall. I've heard this haunting, six-minute piece dozens of times, but it's never hit me like this before: the tender, yearning strings felt like they were right next to me, conveying all of the world's sadness and beauty. For all of the mesmerizing sound effects and foreboding intellect of the Boulez and Stockhausen, this was music that stunned you into silence, and kept you there.

Both last night and tonight's performances were completely sold out, but on July 6, medici.tv will post a free webcast of the concert, which will be available for 90 days. In addition, Q2 will stream the concert on July 10 at 3:00PM, July 11 at 7:00PM, and July 14 at 10:00AM; it will also be available on-demand.

ny philharmonic gruppen park avenue armory
More pics on the photo page.