Stockhausen in an Enormous Space, and Risk to Match

United StatesUnited States Philharmonic 360: Gabrieli, Boulez, Mozart, Stockhausen, Ives: Soloists, Oratorio Society of New York, Manhattan School of Music Chamber Choir, Michael Counts (director), New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert (conductor), Magnus Lindberg (conductor), Matthias Pintscher (conductor), Kent Tritle (conductor), Joshua Weilerstein (conductor), The Park Avenue Armory, 29.6.2012 (BH)

Gabrieli: Canzon XVI (1615)
Boulez: Rituel in Memoriam Bruno Maderna for Orchestra in Eight Groups (1974)
Mozart: Finale to Act I of Don Giovanni (1787)
Stockhausen: Gruppen for Three Orchestras (1955-1957)
Ives: The Unanswered Question (1906-1941; 1985 critical edition)

It feels like I’m the only person who thought the addition of the Mozart on this program was a masterstroke. For months I’ve been talking up this concert (titled Philharmonic 360) at the Park Avenue Armory, and marveling at Alan Gilbert’s creativity and risk-taking in this event—the final stand of the New York Philharmonic’s season.

Although the program for multiple ensembles coalesced around Stockhausen’s Gruppen, Gilbert ingeniously included the finale of Act I of Don Giovanni—a party scene with dance bands playing simultaneously. However, sometimes things don’t work out exactly as one imagines, and in this case the Mozart, while entertaining to watch, probably left many who don’t know the opera puzzled—even exasperated—and much of the problem seemed to be where one sat in the visually striking but acoustically unpredictable space. (At one point, gazing up at the steel beams overhead, I had the sensation of being inside a giant whale.) Seats on risers were available at either end of the block-long room and on either side about midway (where I sat); other listeners were dead-center, sitting in chairs called Back Jacks, flush on the floor. Despite mixed reports on their comfort (think “beach chairs”), my guess is that those who sat in the center probably got the best sound picture.

But back to the Mozart. On the plus side, director Michael Counts (who dazzled us all with the New York City Opera’s trio of Monodramas last year) used the entire room. (Some concerts here have cordoned off the space, using only a part of it.) Three orchestras reveled in the scene’s multiple dances, and a host of singers (including members of the Oratorio Society of New York and the Manhattan School of Music Chamber Choir) arrived down the aisles from all sides, singing around and through the audience. But the time delay between the farthest points caused blurring in the sonic picture, despite the efforts of two extra conductors (Kent Tritle and Joshua Weilerstein) to keep everyone on track. As far as the vocals go, I heard many glimpses of wonderfulness (and nothing egregious) from any of the soloists, with perhaps special nods to Ryan McKinny’s hearty Giovanni and Sasha Cooke’s sparkling Zerlina. But the vagaries of the acoustic really prevent meaningful commentary, and Counts’s animated, busy staging (most of which I actually liked) meant that focus was constantly shifting to points all over the room; one never knew where to look next.

The remainder of the program was hugely successful, starting with an opening amuse bouche, Gabrieli’s Canzon XVI, with brass players resounding from around the interior—an ideal use of the room to create antiphonal effects. And I would bet that many in the audience were surprised at how much they enjoyed Boulez’s Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna for Orchestra in Eight Groups, one of the composer’s experiments with chance operations. Though there are colorful outbursts, much of the score has a solemn, funereal weight—quite different from the startling, glittering impact of Le marteau or Pli selon pli. The Philharmonic’s musicians, arranged in groups as small as one player (an oboe), seemed to relish the score, and if there is any justice—as with the Stockhausen—it will show up again.

And how could anyone have predicted that Gruppen would be such a knockout? Just watching the three conductors—Gilbert, Magnus Lindberg and Matthias Pintscher—take their places onstage(s) caused my pulse to race. The score is constructed of 174 small pieces of sound, arranged in groups and divided among three ensembles—each with an enticing, delicious array of percussion. The three orchestras’ parts are interrelated; imagine a Rube Goldberg device with wheels large and small turning at different speeds. Observing each of the conductors eyeing the other for cues, and hearing their results criss-crossing the space combined to make an extraordinary listening experience. At one climactic moment the sounds raced in a rapid circle around the room (and at that moment, the center floor listeners were probably in bliss). At other times, one orchestra would retreat into silence as another would explode upward in fiery shards. The ovations were the loudest of the entire evening.

Like the opening Gabrieli, Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question made astute use of the hall. Three pools of strings (in the same positions as for the Stockhausen) peacefully surrounded four flutists in the center of the floor, while high above, overhead, in a doorway almost to the ceiling, the lone trumpeter delivered Ives’s laconic answer to the flutes’ anxious cries. Over the years, this gem seems to have been a bit overexposed at the expense of other Ives masterworks, but here it seemed to have found exactly the right home—and made a perfect, celestial ending.

Bruce Hodges