New York Philharmonic to Fill Armory with Surround-Sound Music

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Rendering of 'Gruppen' at the Park Avenue Armory

In 1960, Leonard Bernstein wanted to conduct the New York Philharmonic in a performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen's Gruppen, an extravagant piece that calls for three separate orchestras, each with its own conductor, arrayed in a horseshoe around the audience. But to pull it off, the orchestra would have had to tear out the seats in Carnegie Hall – a proposal that didn't fly with the hall’s management. A report in the New York Times noted, “It is hoped that a performance will prove more feasible at Lincoln Center.”

In fact, the Philharmonic’s move to Lincoln Center in 1962 never did provide a suitable setting for Stockhausen's 1957 piece, which has since attained legendary status in modernist music circles. But on Friday and Saturday nights, Gruppen will finally have its moment when music director Alan Gilbert brings the Philharmonic to the Park Avenue Armory for the first time.

Gruppen is one of four spatial pieces to be specially staged in the Armory's 55,000-square-foot Drill Hall. The others are Pierre Boulez’s Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna, which divides the orchestra into eight groups; the Finale of Act I from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which takes place in a ballroom and includes three chamber orchestras; and Ives’s The Unanswered Question, a piece that physically subdivides the orchestra’s strings, winds and solo trumpet parts.

Creating a continuous evening from these four works fell largely to Michael Counts, a director and designer with experience in producing massive, site-specific art and performance installations. He described the evening as a series of shifts in perspective. "We're changing the center of gravity for each piece,” said Counts, who collaborated with the design firm Fisher Dachs Associates. "So in the Boulez it’s dispersed throughout the piece – it’s behind you, it’s above you, it’s on the balconies. As we transition to the next piece, the center of gravity shifts entirely to the Eastern-most stage."

The Armory, built in 1881, was home to classical music in its early days, when as many as 6,000 audience members would pack the Drill Hall for gigantic orchestral and choral extravaganzas (among them, Berlioz's Requiem and Wagner’s Kaisermarsch). This weekend’s concerts will feature 176 performers and an audience of about 1,450, as dictated by sight lines and fire codes. Counts said the performance will nonetheless occupy most of the room, with some patrons seated on risers and others on the balconies or the floor.

The Philharmonic's concerts at the Armory are years in the making. Kurt Masur envisioned holding summer music festivals there when he was music director in the 1990s. Gilbert was introduced to the space when he arrived in 2008. In the last year, the orchestra has brought in musicians to try out various seating and acoustical arrangements. Despite the room's massive size, a decision was made not to use amplification and instead rely on reflective surface panels on the backs of the stages.

Rebecca Robertson, president and executive producer of the Armory, described the acoustics as "surprisingly good." She believes that the building's architects took care to make the Drill Hall friendly to classical music, even if it was used mainly as a military depot for the Seventh Regiment Armory. "It has this curvilinear roof structure and some parts angle the sound back into the space. It's actually a pretty embracing space.”

Each piece will use the Drill Hall differently. Boulez's 1974 Rituel calls for eight, widely separated groups, each conducted by a percussionist, and the conductor providing a larger sense of direction. In the scene from Don Giovanni, the audience is to become a part of Mozart's ballroom, with the mayhem involving Zerlina, Leporello and company unfolding on all sides.

The biggest wild card remains Gruppen, known for its vivid and even violent soundscape. Reviewing a Tanglewood performance in 1993, New York Times music critic Edward Rothstein was impressed with its sheer scope. "One observed it with a kind of astonishment," he wrote. "Mr. Stockhausen has not written a profound piece, but its theatrics did create a kind of wonder. ‘Gruppen’ seems intended to re-create an almost childlike sense of scale in space and sound.”

Ed Yim, the Philharmonic's artistic director, said the orchestra sees this event as a pilot for future projects in unusual locations around the city, including the Armory. And while it did run over the budget (he declined to cite a figure), he said it's not about profit or loss. "We consider this an investment, not only for New York but for the orchestra." 

Robertson said that as the Armory expands its own programming, she hopes the Philharmonic will see the Drill Hall as a destination for site-specific works that can't fit anywhere else. "The notion of doing this kind of adventurous programming with the Philharmonic is really, really exciting and Alan [Gilbert] seems very interested in doing that kind of work," she said. "It's going to be about the work itself.”

'Philharmonic 360' is sold out but the concert will be offered as a special audio stream on Q2 Music on July 10 at 3 pm, July 11 at 7 pm and July 14 at 10 am.

Audio: Robertson discusses the challenges of staging a work in the Drill Hall:

Audio: Michael Counts describes working in the Armory: