Jul 5th 2012, 14:59 by V.S. | NEW YORK
Stockhausen’s other logistically challenging works are also seldom performed. But the New York Philharmonic recently staged “Gruppen” (1957) as the centrepiece of its“Philharmonic 360” programme for its season finale. The piece requires three orchestras, each with its own conductor.
Alan Gilbert, music director of the Philharmonic, found the ideal space for the concert: Park Avenue Armory. Its vast and cavernous drill hall is the size of a football pitch with a soaring barrel-vaulted roof. Since becoming an arts venue in 2007 it has hosted exhibitions and installations, dance, fashion shows and concerts. It is a worthy choice for unconventional classical music—Georg Friedrich Haas’s “In Vain” (2000), an orchestral work played mostly in darkness, was performed there in February 2011, for example—and it is especially suitable for staging the five spatial works that made up the “Philharmonic 360” programme.
The hall was cleverly configured. Several hundred people were seated in a circular area in the centre, surrounding them were three orchestras on separate stages with other listeners seated on rows of rising seats nestled in between. The rich layers of Stockhausen’s “Gruppen” are captivating. Conductors Magnus Lindberg and Matthias Pintscher joined Mr Gilbert, leading one orchestra each. They neatly accomplished the tricky feat of co-ordinating the different tempos and metres—the soundscape was at once cacophonous and beautiful. Stockhausen wrote about the piece: “Whole envelopes of rhythmic blocks are exact lines of mountains that I saw in Paspels, in Switzerland, right in front of my little window.”
For Giovanni Gabrieli’s “Canzon XVI” (1610), the hall worked like an acoustic replica of a baroque cathedral. The glorious fanfares echoed through the cavernous space from the brass players stationed in clusters across the three stages. Polyphony (music with multiple melodies) is also a major component of Pierre Boulez’s “Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna” (1974), for which the orchestra was divided into eight groups, each with colourful percussion elements such as tabla (Indian hand drums) and Japanese wood blocks. Mr Gilbert, standing on a podium in the middle of the circular seating area, conducted the kaleidoscopic work, a collage of luxuriantly textured sounds. A serene rendition of Charles Ives’ “Unanswered Question” (1906) also charmed listeners with the reverberant acoustics of the hall.
A piece from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” (1787) fared less well. The first act finale fit the bill because of its spatial elements—the scene takes place at a ball with three different dance bands—but despite the talented singers wandering through the audience as they performed, wearing white dresses and extravagant white wigs, the effect was underwhelming. Their voices were swallowed by the huge space and co-ordination problems between soloists and the ensemble resulted in an un-Mozartian mess.
Mozart aside, the imaginative programme worked brilliantly. Listeners have long complained about the drab acoustics of Avery Fisher Hall, the Philharmonic’s permanent home. On this occasion, the Park Avenue Armory proved an acoustically fertile space for Mr Gilbert’s vision.
“Philharmonic 360” will be broadcast, free, on medici.tv for 90 days from July 6th