New York Philharmonic: Philharmonic 360
Park Avenue Armory
Friday, June 29
Better than: Just another night at Lincoln Center, with or without quadrophonic sound.
Upon entering the cavernous Park Avenue Armory’s awesome performance space, audience members had to walk around a tableau vivant consisting of several artistocratic actors who would reappear later during Mozart’s Don Giovanni. This was the Phil’s way of letting us know it was letting down its hair for a night. Shorts and T-shirts were in abundance during the first of two sold-out shows dedicated to a handful of mostly modern works that took full advantage of the Armory’s 55,000 square feet. Of course, nothing signifies wealth locally as much as real estate, so even though this was the Upper East Side equivalent of a fabulous warehouse party, the likelihood of stumbling upon a vomit-scented chillout room was very low.
Following an unannounced, spatially dispersed piece by 16th-century composer Giovanni Gabrieli, conductor Alan Gilbert’s Philharmonic 360 opened with Pierre Boulez’s Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna, a nod to the composer’s famous new-music “rug concerts” with the Philharmonic. Here we were again, some three decades later, hearing the same challenging music Boulez might have programmed back then. So why no contemporary works on the program, one couldn’t help but wonder? Sitting on the floor, surrounded by grandstands alternating with stages, one’s neck might have become sore from twisting around to see what was going on in the back.
The evening’s centerpiece, so to speak, was Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gruppen (Groups) for three orchestras. Recordings lend only the roughest approximations of Stockhausen’s riotous masterwork, which is based roughly on single pitches devilishly chopped and screwed with Germanic precision. Gruppen—174 moments organized into groups—is scupulously formal yet inspired by natural imagery, including rhythmic “blocks” based on the alpine profile the 27-year-old scoped while composing it. Intermittent percussive riots leapt and circled among the orchestras conducted by Gilbert, Magnus Lindberg, and Matthias Pintscher. Orchestral music’s first electric guitar could be heard plaintively in between crescendoing chords transported flawlessly from stage to stage. Space, it turns out, is indeed the place.
Indonesian gamelan music inspired Boulez’s Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna (Boulez and Maderna, along with the composer, conducted Gruppen‘s 1958 debut). Arguably Boulez’s most accessible work, Rituel is a “ceremony of remembrance and extinction” in which gamelan is stripped to the bone, with a single percussionist in each group “following” the musicians’ antiphonal conversations. From the center of the Armory, Gilbert appeared to throw pixie dust into the air as he cued each of the eight widely dispersed groups in succession. It was a tough act to follow, even for Mozart, and one felt for the two dozen or so costumed singers who wheeled about the floor seemingly at random during the ball scene from Don Giovanni. Their voices varied from a whisper to a scream depending on how nearby they were, a distance that could sometimes be measured in inches.
As though in response to the frequent frenzy of Gruppen, a lone trumpet posed The Unanswered Question from high in the Armory’s belfry to an increasingly restless flute quartet in the middle of the floor. Strings on three stages, meanwhile, whispered the timeless chords composer Charles Ives characterized as “The Silences of the Druids—Who Know, See, and Hear Nothing.” Ives’s five minutes of infinity concluded the Phil’s 15,398th concert, an evening devoted to the mysteries of space and time, sex and death, and other imponderables. Thankfully, there was plenty of room.
Critical bias: Call me Gruppie. I’ve been looking forward to experiencing Gruppen my entire life.
Overheard: “I nearly passed out from shock when the guy sitting beside me stood up and started to sing.”
GABRIELI: Canzon XVI
Pierre BOULEZ: Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna for Orchestra in Eight Groups (1974-75)
MOZART: Finale to Act 1 of Don Giovanni (1787)
STOCKHAUSEN: Gruppen (“Groups”) for Three Orchestras (1955-57)
IVES: The Unanswered Question (1906-ca. 1941)