The New York Philharmonic offered some big sounds in its season-ending program on the last two days of June, and served them up on a really big plate: in the 55,000-square-foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall at the New York Armory. That venue afforded Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert the chance to present works that ask listeners to savor not only the music, but the space in which it is performed.
With orchestras on three stages and smaller ensembles elsewhere in the hall and on the building’s catwalks, the music came from just about everywhere. For several hundred people seated on the floor in the middle of the Drill Hall, it came from literally all around – hence the name of the concert, “Philharmonic 360.”
The Philharmonic has whipped up a bit of visual spectacle for its season-closers since Gilbert arrived, with staged operas – Ligeti’s Le Grande Macabre in 2010, and Janácek’s The Cunning Little Vixen last year – that brought clever, colorful costumes and sets into staid Avery Fisher Hall. This year, the visual spectacle – the work of director and designer Michael Counts and theater design firm Fisher Dachs Associates – was quieter, but very grand, emphasizing the spaciousness of the Armory and the sense of space in the music. The cavernous hall was mostly darkened, the three stages backed by rear-lit panels that accompanied the music with subtle changes of color. Lighting designers Brian Aldous and Kyle Chepulis made sure all of the musicians were carefully and clearly illuminated.
The centerpiece of the program – and the reason for building three stages for three separate orchestras – was Karlheinz Stockhausen’s mid-1950s work, Gruppen (“Groups”), created from a 12-tone row and other serialist principles, yielding a fantastical piece that swerved, shimmered, and leaped from orchestra to orchestra around the room. The effects created in Gruppen were sometimes thrilling and sometimes just plain weird. I must frankly say that I have no idea if the piece was well-performed, and even the question, “Is this music?” crossed my mind as I listened. But to hear it and feel it in that space was an arresting, fascinating experience.
Some of the same ideas were present in Pierre Boulez’s Rituel in memorian Bruno Maderna, written in 1974 as a tribute to a fellow new-music composer. This work made the most of the Armory space, with the orchestra broken up into eight different ensembles, each with at least one percussion player, ranging from a single oboist to a platoon of more than a dozen brass players and two percussionists manning a busy kitchen of hanging gongs and tam-tams. Tone clusters and rhythmic motifs were announced, shared and commented on by musical communities all around the enormous space, growing in complexity as the piece went on. Some of that complexity was apparently lost on the audience, which grew restless as the music continued; it seemed clear that, for a number of patrons, Boulez’s memorial simply went on too long.
The most conventional fare of the evening came from Mozart, who surely never envisioned the party scene from Act I of Don Giovanni being mounted in a space the size of an airplane hangar. The setting sharply emphasized the three dances, performed by separate ensembles, delineating the social classes occupied by the characters in the opera. Most of the singers were youngsters making their Philharmonic debuts in this concert. They needed to be young, too, to move across a performance space with dimensions approximating a football field.
If there was a problematic work on the program, it was this one. The singers wore microphones, but they were for recording the performance, not for amplifying it in the hall. Coordinating the instruments and voices required two “offstage” conductors to give a unified beat and provide cues for singers not oriented toward maestro Gilbert on the main stage. Sound coordination was a problem, according to some concert-goers who sat in other sections. But I loved seeing the action of the opera “opened up,” with the characters emerging from the audience; we were all at this messy party. And sonically, I thought the whole thing hung together remarkably well. The story was told, and we missed a few words, well – that’s like being at a party, isn’t it?
The 18th-century world of Don Giovanni provided the second important visual element of “Philharmonic 360” (beyond the performance space itself). At the entrance to the Drill Hall, before the concert began, a group of mannequins was posed on a platform and beneath the stadium seats – men in contemporary business suits and women in long, 18th-century gowns and a high, white wigs. It took me a few moments to register the fact that they were, in fact, not mannequins at all, but a living tableau, perhaps illustrating flirtation, seduction or predation. Don Giovanni is, after all, an expert at all three. But these figures were not in some faraway drama; they looked right at you. It was an inspired, if unsettling, touch by the design team.
We saw the figures later, for they were all members of the Don Giovanni ensemble. They caught the eyes of audience members again, just to remind us that we we’re all in this together, even across the centuries, even in a space as large as the New York Armory.
Bookending the concert were works that do not require space to make their point, but speak most eloquently via musical long-distance. Three brass choirs opened the evening with Giovanni Gabrieli's Canzon XVI for performance at St. Mark’s Church in Venice. Their rich, regal beauty was fanned into blazing musical fire when all the choirs spoke together. Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question ended the performances on a stirring, mystical note, with principal trumpeter Phil Smith asking Ives’s question from a spot high up at one end of the Drill Hall. His quiet, forthright sound, more than any other heard at this extraordinary concert, seemed to come from every direction.
By my account, Alan Gilbert is three-for-three on season-enders since joining the New York Philharmonic. I can’t wait to see and hear what he and the orchestra do to close the season next year.
'Philharmonic 360' 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.
Photo: Chris Lee. Disclosure: WQXR is a broadcast partner of the New York Philharmonic