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Surround Sound Through the Centuries
Alan Gilbert's 'Philharmonic 360' at Park Avenue Armory
Anthony Tommasini | The New York Times | 1 July 2012

Those who think classical music needs some shaking up routinely challenge music directors at major orchestras to think outside the box. That is precisely what Alan Gilbert did on Friday night for an exhilarating concert with the New York Philharmonic in the Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory. His program, "Philharmonic 360," took the orchestra outside the box of Avery Fisher Hall and into the armory's cavernous hall, a space the size of a football field with a vaulted 80-foot ceiling. The reverberating acoustics there make it problematic for many kinds of music. But not all kinds.

Mr. Gilbert, finishing his third season as the Philharmonic's music director, seized on the Drill Hall as ideally suited to works conceived with a spatial dimension to the sound, especially Stockhausen's "Gruppen" ("Groups") for Three Orchestras. This 25-minute piece, composed in the mid-1950s, is meant to be played by three separately positioned orchestras with an audience in the middle. It is performed rarely because it is hard to adapt traditional concert halls to this scheme.

But the Drill Hall was perfect for "Gruppen." With this work as the mainstay of the program, Mr. Gilbert chose scores by Pierre Boulez and Charles Ives that also involve spatial elements. And to show that composers in earlier eras sometimes thought spatially, he included the finale to Act I of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" — the party in Giovanni's ballroom — in which three groups of instruments simultaneously play different dances.

Mr. Gilbert comes across as a modest, serious-minded musician, both in person and on the podium. Yet he is at his most dynamic when he thinks big, as with the white-hot performance he conducted in 2010 of Ligeti's bleakly satirical opera "Le Grand Macabre," in an inventive production by the director Doug Fitch at Avery Fisher Hall. "Philharmonic 360," this season's special Gilbert project, was comparably ambitious and successful.

The director and designer Michael Counts, who staged New York City Opera's 2011 "Monodramas" production, helped transform this concert into a theatrical performance with a made-to-order set. In the center of the hall several hundred audience members sat in circular rows, resting against innovative supports called Back Jacks. There were three surrounding platforms for three orchestras, all subgroups of the Philharmonic, with a conductor's podium in the middle. Between the platforms traditional rising rows of seats had been set up; all together about 1,400 audience members were accommodated. That Friday's performance (and Saturday's repeat) was sold out well in advance should reassure the Philharmonic's board that there is a classical music audience eager for adventures in programming.

Mr. Gilbert began the evening with a piece unlisted in the program: Gabrieli's Canzon XVI, played by three brass ensembles positioned in far-apart sections of the balcony. The Drill Hall was a perfect place to duplicate the effect of brass fanfares and riffs bounding from one balcony to another in Baroque cathedrals. By including Gabrieli, Mr. Gilbert showed that composers from that era were spatial music pioneers.

Mr. Boulez's "Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna" is a work from the mid-1970s scored for eight diverse groups of instruments, with each group including one or more melodic instruments and percussion. The work was a tribute to Maderna, Mr. Boulez's close colleague, who died in 1973. As such, much of the music has a somber cast. Mr. Boulez's high modernist language and 12-tone techniques have put off some listeners. But in this score the delicacy and specificity of his writing are wondrous. And the sheer drama of the music came through, with groups of instruments placed high and low all over the hall. Though the rhythmic content is often intricately complex, a steady, subdued drumbeat enhances the ritual element of what is, after all, a memorial piece.

The "Don Giovanni" scene was a fascinating experiment that did not quite work. The main orchestral music was performed by an ensemble on one side of the hall, conducted by Mr. Gilbert. But the singers, headed by the bass-baritone Ryan McKinny as Giovanni, used almost the entire space, including audience sections, as a stage. Also scattered about were members of the Oratorio Society of New York and the Manhattan School of Music Chamber Choir (directed by Kent Tritle), in costume for Giovanni's ball: the women in surreal white gowns with puffy, powdered white wigs; the men in tuxedos or black suits.

There were some captivating effects, though. In the trio, when Donna Elvira (Keri Alkema), Donna Anna (Julianna Di Giacomo) and Don Ottavio (Russell Thomas) show up in masks at Don Giovanni's ball, intending to expose him as a lecher and killer, the three singers wandered separately through the rows in my section. Hearing the individual voices coming from separate places gave a spatial jolt to the trio.

It was also revealing to have some separation between the dance bands, with Mr. Tritle and Joshua Weilerstein (an assistant conductor at the Philharmonic) helping out. But the echoing acoustics muddled the textures so much that the music seemed a little stodgy. Still, in this inspired scene, Mozart evokes an effect he encountered many times in aristocratic ballrooms, where he would hear the music of different dance bands mingling together. So it was fitting to include Mozart as an experimenter in spatial composition.

The Stockhausen was performed as conceived with three orchestras and three conductors, Mr. Gilbert and two composer-conductor colleagues: Magnus Lindberg and Matthias Pintscher. "Gruppen" is an organic piece with dazzling instrumental colors, craggy rhythmic energy and astringent sonorities — both dissonant and beautiful. Hearing the music volleyed among three ensembles ratchets up the dramatics. There are few moments in "Gruppen" when Stockhausen just piles it on. Instead he uses the distance between ensembles to highlight arresting, challenging details. The audience broke into prolonged applause and cheers.

Ives's "Unanswered Question" is a 20th-century landmark of spatial music. In the background the strings of the orchestra play placid, hushed diatonic chords that slowly move up and down the scale. Here that backdrop was given added luster by dividing the strings into three sections on separate platforms. The solo trumpet posing cosmic questions emerged from a distant high balcony, while the four flutists who struggle for answers were placed in the dead center of the hall. Mr. Gilbert, assisted by Mr. Weilerstein, led a glowing, serene yet suspenseful performance.

If only programs like this one were regular offerings, not just ambitious special projects. Mr. Gilbert pushed to make "Philharmonic 360" happen. He should keep pushing.
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