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N.Y. Philharmonic Sees Triple
Andy Battaglia | The Wall Street Journal | 21 June 2012

The vigorously committed, cosmically inclined composer Karlheinz Stockhausen was never known for small gestures—nor is the Park Avenue Armory, the setting next weekend for a presentation of one of Stockhausen's major creations.

"There's certain work that needs us," said Rebecca Robertson, the Armory's president and executive producer. "'Gruppen' is one of those works."

First performed in 1958, Stockhausen's "Gruppen" calls for three orchestras to play simultaneously in intricate arrays of clustered sounds enlisted to do nothing less than alter the nature of time and space. The piece will be presented in the Armory's 55,000-square-foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall, with accommodation for more than 1,400 listeners placed all around—some in bleacher-style seating adjacent to the three orchestras, others amassed in the center of the hall on the floor, literally surrounded by the music.

"Gruppen" will be the centerpiece, so to speak, of the New York Philharmonic's "Philharmonic 360," a two-night event featuring four pieces of "spatial music," with like-minded works by Mozart, Pierre Boulez and Charles Ives.

"I've seen many productions of the New York Phil, but I've never seen one that looks like this before," said Michael Counts, the stage director charged with designing a means for musical presentation in a venue notably unlike a typical symphony hall. "One of the challenges set for me from the beginning was to have it be more than just a concert—to have it be a real event. It's not just a program where we all sit and experience music the same way."

Part of that mission entailed rethinking the conventional orientation among musicians, conductors and audience members assembled to listen and look. For "Gruppen," the surround-sound layout follows provisions similar to those conceived by Stockhausen himself when he composed the piece in the mid-1950s. (Having written music that once scored the patterns of a quartet of helicopters in flight, the German composer was not one to skimp on particulars.) The performance will be undertaken by the approximately 100 members of the Philharmonic, split into three groups.

For the other works, some of the musicians will migrate to outposts around the drill hall's empty environs. For the performance of Pierre Boulez's "Rituel in Memoriam Bruno Maderna," performers will scatter among eight different locations, including a balcony perched near the top of the vaulted ceiling. For an excerpt from Mozart's opera "Don Giovanni," a chorus of 40 will join several soloists taking up stations around and within the crowd.

At the epicenter will be conductor and New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert, who devised the program in an effort to elevate the expressly spatial aspirations at work in the Stockhausen piece.

"'Gruppen' is one of those 20th-century works that everyone in music knows about but very few have had a chance to experience, because it is so difficult to present and it really must be experienced live. A recording really doesn't capture what Stockhausen created," Mr. Gilbert said via email. "It is a legend, known through reputation more than hearing."

In addition to its need of ample space for three orchestras to spread out and make themselves at home, "Gruppen"—a dramatic and sometimes discordant piece that draws on Stockhausen's interests in mathematics and the metaphysics of space—requires special reserves of rigor from those in charge of its playing.

"It's a headache piece for the three conductors," laughed Magnus Lindberg, who will lead one of the orchestras, with Mr. Gilbert and Matthias Pintscher conducting the others. "It's a very complex and difficult world of three layers of tempo running simultaneously. The meter is changing all the time, and in the middle of one bar you have to follow from one conductor to another. You need to know exactly what the other conductors are doing or it becomes a mess within a fraction of a second."

When he first conducted a performance of "Gruppen," at a concert in Europe three years ago, Mr. Lindberg spent a whole summer poring over the score, two dense and demanding pages per day.

"It's tricky, but it's very organic, like being inside a huge plant," he said. "It's a unique milestone in 20th-century music. Without having heard 'Gruppen,' you can't make a link between how the orchestra has evolved and what the orchestra is today."

It also suits the expansive space inside the Park Avenue Armory, which, since opening in 1881 as the headquarters for the Seventh New York Militia Regiment, has hosted ostentatious galas, tennis tournaments, chariot races with horses on the run, food festivals—and music.

"We do know that in 1881 and subsequent years they had huge music festivals here," Ms. Robertson said of early artistic intentions for the space she helped re-establish as a cultural venue just a few years ago. "If they were thinking about music right when the building opened, they must have been thinking about it all along."

One of the earliest concerts featured a philharmonic society that was a predecessor of the New York Philharmonic itself. Since then, the lineage has remained as conventions have evolved. "In a concert hall, you go in and sit where you're supposed to sit, they let you have a little bit of light, you're separated form the artists and that's how it all works," Ms. Robertson said. "In this space, you don't have to do it that way. New music sounds really good in here, very live, very real—it goes through you. It's a very present experience."
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