The New York Philharmonic in a concert titled "Philharmonic 360"… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)
NEW YORK — Last month, Gustavo Dudamel ended his third season as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic with a splash — a venturesome staged performance of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" in a great space (Walt Disney Concert Hall) and the world premiere of John Adams' Passion opera, "The Gospel According to the Other Mary."
Friday night, it was the New York Philharmonic's turn. Alan Gilbert ended his third season as music director with a venturesome staged excerpt from "Don Giovanni" (the first-act party scene) paired with two avant-garde classics — Karlheinz Stockhausen's "Gruppen" and Pierre Boulez's "Rituel" — in another great space. The orchestra doesn't actually have its own impressive site, saddled as it is with the unloved Avery Fisher Hall, so it moved across town to the soaring, 19th century Park Avenue Armory, which has been turned into a glorious arts venue.
Called "Philharmonic 360," the program consisted of pieces written for surround sound (though long before that term appeared). The New York Philharmonic was divided into several ensembles that were placed around the hall. The audience had the options of bleacher seats, standing on a high railing or a total immersion of sitting on the floor, which was my choice.
This setup was not unlike the premiere last month in L.A. of Anne LeBaron's opera "Crescent City," where the audience could sit on bean bags on the stage floor. But in the spirit of déjà vu all over again, the Armory event was also reminiscent of the Rug Concerts that Boulez put on when he was music director of the New York Philharmonic four decades ago. Back then, he invited listeners to plop down on rugs or cushions for informal new music concerts.
After years of the New York Philharmonic's having acted as if Boulez's progressive music and ideas were regrettable, Gilbert is now guiding the institution gradually Boulez-ward. The splendid performance of "Rituel," the highlight of Friday's concert, was a big step in that right direction.
A memorial for the Italian composer Bruno Maderna, "Rituel," written during Boulez's New York years (but premiered in 1975 with the BBC Symphony in London), is for eight instrumental groups, each with melody instruments and percussion. At the Armory, they were spaced along the circumference of the hall either on platforms at floor level or high above the audience. Gilbert stood on a podium in the center.
The score has a processional character and an Asian flavor. Percussion tolls, with gongs favored. Surprisingly, Boulez toys with repetition, which was all the rage in New York at the time but not by Boulez, who was known for favoring ever-changing complexity in his music. "Rituel" became the best of both worlds — intricate, of course, but also a real and unforgettably poignant ritual.
The orchestra played Friday with a restrained, expressive brilliance that made it seem for once proud of its Boulezian heritage. For his part, Gilbert found the Armory's acoustic sweet spot. I wish that a rug hadn't been placed over the hardwood floor to make sitting a bit easier. The vibrations here were of such a magically high quality that they were worth experiencing directly through every body part.
The 20-minute "Don Giovanni" excerpt that followed was included because Mozart has, at one point, three orchestras playing three dances at the same time. The New Yorkers went through considerable effort to liven up the scene theatrically. Michael Counts was designer and director. There were costumes and choreography as well as lighting and theater design. The cast was young and fine.
But in this huge and reverberant hall, the result was a mess. You heard what was close to you. Everything else became a distant blend. From my vantage point on the floor I could tell who had polished their shoes and who hadn't.
"Gruppen," following intermission, was supposed to be the evening's main event. Stockhausen wrote it for three orchestras 20 years before "Rituel," and the score proved groundbreaking. The visionary German composer meant "Gruppen" ("Groups") to reveal the shapes of mountains and the teeming biology within them. But in his advanced use of complicated technical procedures, including a radical relativistic treatment of time with the three orchestras, he clearly hoped to move musical mountains as well.
The three orchestras were placed at the corners of a large triangle rather than at the right angles Stockhausen envisioned, and each had its own conductor (Gilbert and the composers Matthias Pintscher and Magnus Lindberg). Stockhausen is in the difficult details, and the reverberant Armory produced a lush "Gruppen" mush, not at all unattractive and not at all Stockhausen's startlingly original sound.
The evening ended with Ives' "Unanswered Question," and it was an anticlimax. I doubt that there was ever a question for which Stockhausen didn't have an elaborate and possibly way-out answer.
The one thing that this concert got that the L.A. Phil's undocumented "Don Giovanni" did not get was a cadre of video cameras swooping all over the place. The arts website Medici.tv will stream the concert beginning Friday.