The New York Philharmonic’s “Armory Show”

On June 29, 2012, I attended the first presentation of the New York Philharmonic's Armory Show!  This was the 15,398th concert by the NYP, according to the program book.  Alan Gilbert's desire to perform Karlheinz Stockhausen's "Gruppen" for Three Orchestras in an appropriate spacial setting was the motivation for this concert.  Since "Gruppen" by itself is not long enough for a concert, he assembled a program with two other works calling for dispersion of orchestral forces in a large space — Pierre Boulez's "Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna for Orchestra in 8 Groups" and Charles Ives's "The Unanswered Question."  Still not enough to make up a full program, so he added on the finale to Act I of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's opera "Don Giovanni".

But the audience seated in the Armory waiting for the program to begin was in for a surprise.  When Gilbert stepped onto the central platform in the large space, surrounded by an inner circle of audience members seated on the floor and additional people surrounding them on risers with platforms interspersed for groups from the orchestra, the first sounds were not of Boulez, as stated in the program, but rather of Giovanni Gabrieli.  I had never heard the Boulez piece before, and so was at first puzzled about why Boulez would be writing something that sounds like Renaissance polyphony for brass.  But the familiar harmonic language of Gabrieli quickly cleared things up for me.  I was surprised that no announcement was made.

The ensuing Boulez composition was perfectly suited for the Armory space and made a striking impact. Oboe soloist Liang Wang, stationed high up on a balcony together with a percussionist, had several striking solos.  Musicians were dispersed throughout the hall, on balconies and risers, and the music provided sufficient variety to keep one quite engaged.

The Mozart was not perfectly suited to this kind of set-up, and I  thought it was a failed experiment.  The inspiration for it was that Mozart pulled off a real coup de theatre by having this scene, taking place at a ball, present different orchestras simultaneously playing different dance music in separate rooms, using off-stage and on-stage ensembles, with the music creating incidental dissonances but basically meshing in a kaleidoscopic way.  That's fine, and it works well in an opera house, but trying to present an extended operatic scene in the set-up they used for this concert did not work well, at least for me.  The main orchestra was seated at the east end of the Armory hall, facing the wall where conductor Gilbert was stationed.  The other two orchestras were also facing away from the center, led by the NYP's assistant conductors.  Thus, all the orchestras were projecting their music AWAY from the audience.  Meanwhile, the singers were cavorting about and through the circle of audience members seated in the center, singing their recitative and arias and ensembles in Italian.  They were costumed appropriately.  As they were moving about (and some were singing from seats in the risers among the audience), their voices were projecting in all different directions.  Even though there were three conductors, stationed such that each singer would always have at least one of the conductors in view no matter which way they were standing or facing, problems of coordination were significant, and voices projecting in all different directions created an acoustic muddle at times, at least from where I was sitting.  They got through it, and it was quite entertaining, but I don't think this was a particularly good way to hear the Mozart.

The Stockhausen was another matter entirely – this was an excellent way to hear "Gruppen."  Instead of the NYP assistants, distinguished composers Magnus Lindberg and Matthias Pintscher were enlisted to conduct the two subsidiary orchestras with Gilbert leading the primary group – although perhaps it is wrong to label them that way, because they seemed to be of about equal size and importance throughout the work.  The problem, for me, was that I found the musical content itself much less distinctive and interesting than in the Boulez piece.  Indeed, it seemed to go on much longer than need be to make its points, and its points seemed to be more about texture and dynamics than about themes and their development.  Sonic landscapes, I suppose.  But this piece didn't sustain its interest as well as the Boulez piece.

Finally, the Ives, which was magnificently done.  NYP Trumpet Principal Philip Smith, stationed high up on a balcony at the west end of the hall, intoned the repeated question, as an ensemble of four woodwinds, cued by one of the NYP's assistant conductors (the program book did not specify which of the two it was), played the responses — the last question, of course, having no response, as per the title of the work — while Gilbert, Lindberg and Pintscher led the strings, dispersed in three groups, in the eerie quiet shifting chords underlying the work.  The effect of all this was quite stunning.

Cameras and microphones were in evidence throughout the hall, so I suspect sometime later this year we will see a DVD release with surround sound of this concert, probably patched together from the performance I attended and the one held the following night. 

I thought it was a notable event – a "happening" really – which drew out a younger audience than the NYP usually attracts, probably including quite a few people who don't regularly attend "classical" concerts.  In the event, I thought an opportunity was missed by not providing some spoken commentary during the evening.  Gilbert is actually quite good at this, as he's shown several times during NYP concerts at Avery Fisher Hall.  I think that after playing the Gabrieli, he could have said something about what it was and why they added it to the program, and some  more commentary during the course of the concert would have been nice.  It would also have been helpful to have some projected titles during the Mozart.  They printed the libretto in the program, but it was in very small print and the lights were dimmed during the performance anyway.  So there are things to think about for the next time they try something like this.  I would vote for a Berlioz or Verdi Requiem in the Armory!!!

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