New York Philharmonic to Fill Armory with Surround-Sound Music

Audio: Bass Keith Miller tells Jeff Spurgeon about Singing in the Armory

Wednesday, June 27, 2012 - 11:00 AM

Rendering of 'Gruppen' at the Park Avenue Armory 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:


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Comments [5]


Allow me to correct what I wrote.

I should have written: "Babbitt, Boulez, Carter, Stockhausen: Four composers who give atonal music a bad name."

Jun. 30 2012 07:09 AM

the quality of the composition isn't worth the effort, check out Gruppen on YouTube, it's random music.

Jun. 29 2012 12:53 PM

Babbitt, Boulez, Carter, Stockhausen: Four composers that give atonal music a bad name.

When is Alan Gilbert going to start championing the beautiful orchestral works of neglected atonal composers Roger Sessions, Andrew Imbrie, and Artur Schnabel?

Jun. 29 2012 12:12 AM
David from Flushing

It is curious that classical music performances are coming back to the Park Avenue Armory. The bad acoustics of the place evident during the May Music Festivals of the 1880s led to the construction of Carnegie Hall. There were performances that actually were halted to allowed dismayed patrons to leave the armory.

There are several immense works of the late 19th century that were intended for areas. These featured processions of choirs and actors to provide visual interest. Nearly all of these have never seen revival.

Jun. 27 2012 06:21 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

The CLEVELAND, Ohio arena, bigger than the Park Avenue Armory had Rise Stevens as Carmen in a full scale presentation of the opera back in the 1950s. I sang the Rhadames to Rina Telli's Aida in a Salmaggi Oudoor Opera performance at the Randall's Island Stadium, with 20,000 attendance. And the Met Opera regularly performs outdoors at Central Park in the Summer, with far greater attendance. Who can forget Hollywood Bowl or Berlin, Germany's Waldbuehner or Verona, Italy's arena , where the orchestra is augmented to 200 players and the thrilling experience exceeds many indoor events with even the same vocal artists. Using enormous arenas and stadiums and armories can engage the fullest of theater technical 'wonders' to enhance the experience of music listening and performing. Let's go for it !!! Using the armory on Park Avenue and the other armories in NYC for musical presentations, especially of the Stockhousen, Berlioz and Wagner epic masterpieces is a GRAND (opera) idea !!! I am a Wagnerian heldentenor and the director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, where professional actors are trained for the Shakespeare roles and big-voiced singers are coached in the Wagner roles and voice production and dramaturgy techniques.
Websites:,, and where one may download, free, 37 complete "Live from Carnegie Hall" selections that I have sung in four concerts, three of them three hours-long solo concerts and one concert, a Joint Recital with the dramatic soprano Norma Jean Erdmann, in the main hall of Carnegie Hall, the Isaac Stern Auditorium, by opening up, downloading, from the "Recorded Selections" venue.

Jun. 27 2012 05:20 PM

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