Gilbert’s 360 Armory Spectacular

by Sedgwick Clark

Live mannequins greeted audience members as they ascended the steps of the Park Avenue Armory for the New York Philharmonic’s genuine season finale under Alan Gilbert. A few steps further, under a set of bleachers, stood a group of powder-wigged ladies in white floor-length dresses. I stared at one, and her eyes followed me as I passed into the concert arena: creepy, like a white-face mime at Columbus Circle or a smoking caryatid in Jean Cocteau’s film Beauty and the Beast.

They were, we learned later, the chorus in the First Act finale of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Across Central Park, away from the orchestra’s staid subscription series at Lincoln Center, Gilbert could cut loose and astonish us in music for multiple orchestras by Gabrieli, Boulez, Mozart, Stockhausen, and Ives. Two evenings dominated by a pair of postwar modernist classics heard only once before in New York had sold out the Armory’s 1,400 seats far in advance, and standees ringed the catwalks on each side of the arena. All the performances bespoke meticulous rehearsal. Even when precision inevitably suffered from the cavernous acoustic and football-field separation of orchestras and singers, one thoroughly appreciated the care in preparation.

The whole production was filmed and will be available for streaming free on July 6 at 2:00 p.m. and for 90 days henceforth on Click for more information.

Oddly, the opening Gabrieli Canzon XVI for antiphonal brass and its performers were not listed in the program. Too bad, for the Philharmonic brass may never have sounded so sheerly beautiful in their home town. They deserved more recognition than mere listing in the orchestra roster 11 pages later.

The major works were Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gruppen (“Groups”) for Three Orchestras (1955-57) and Pierre Boulez’s Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna for Orchestra in Eight Groups (1974-75). Both have been more written about than performed—at least in the U.S.—and it’s easy to hear why. The music is fiendishly difficult and requires extra rehearsal time (as well as extra conductors in Gruppen, in this instance Magnus Lindberg and Matthias Pintscher). Over half a century later, the German composer’s total serialism and experiments in electronics have not gained a wide audience. These performances of Gruppen were only the second and third in New York; the first was by the New England Conservatory Orchestra at Juilliard in 1965. Tanglewood attendees may recall when Oliver Knussen, Rheinbert De Leeuw, and Robert Spano led the work and then repeated it immediately at the festival’s Contemporary Music series in 1993 (those interested should google Edward Rothstein’s eloquent Times review).

Critics usually tread lightly on reputed “classics” for fear of appearing foolish among their colleagues. I’ll plead obtuseness and say that, for me, Gruppen’s sole arresting moment occurred about three-quarters into the piece, when the north and south orchestras passed recognizably similar material back and forth for a few seconds (the climax?) before reverting to the work’s arid intellectuality. The piece seemed far longer than its 21:21 timing indicated. Perhaps repeated viewings of the Medici streaming will produce a “eureka.”

While Boulez is no less intellectually rigorous than Stockhausen, he nearly always seduces the listener (or me, anyway) with the glimmering colors in which he cloaks his music. He is, after all, French and a descendant of Debussy and Ravel, although in Rituel he evokes his teacher Messiaen. It lasts under 30 minutes, but there’s a sameness to it that made it seem overlong at its U.S. premiere with the Philharmonic under the composer in January 1977 and which Gilbert could not counteract.

So what’s Mozart doing in this company? The final scene of Don Giovanni involves three small orchestras, which were spaced out in the performance space with the singers roving around in the audience. The audacity of staging this scene in such a vast space with so much going on at the same time far outweighed the lack of precision or the fact that the singers’ lines became an indistinct echo when the characters weren’t directly facing you.

Charles Ives’s bona fide 20th-century classic, The Unanswered Question, which closed the concert, for once received its ideal spatial layout: the horseshoe arrangement of strings on the floor, playing ppp throughout to represent “The Silences of the Druids—Who Know, See, and Hear Nothing”; the flutes seeking “The Invisible Answer” from a raised platform amid the strings; and the solo trumpet lofting “The Perennial Question of Existence” from an open door at the very top of the western end of the Armory. While I would have welcomed a broader tempo (Gilbert was just under six minutes), the Philharmonic’s playing was tonal beauty incarnate.

A Class Act

The actor Alec Baldwin has donated a million dollars to the New York Philharmonic. The gift specifically honors the orchestra’s outgoing president and chief executive Zarin Mehta.

“I have loved classical music all of my life,” stated  Baldwin in a Philharmonic press release on Monday (7/2), “but Zarin Mehta made my dream of becoming part of the world of classical music come true.” So far, the actor has become host of the weekly Philharmonic broadcasts, recorded a pre-concert admonition to audiences to turn off their cellphones et al., performed the role of Narrator in Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat under Valery Gergiev in 2010, been host of some of the orchestra’s Live from Lincoln Center broadcasts, become a member of the Philharmonic Board, and recorded a Capitol One bank TV commercial promoting Lincoln Center, for which he was paid a cool million and which he has now graciously passed on to the orchestra.

A class act, Mr. Baldwin. Perhaps I’m naive, but I can’t help thinking that there are more stars of the popular arts and sports who love classical music and would welcome a Zarin Mehta’s enterprising offer to support their local arts scene. It’s surely worth a try.

Comments are closed.