|Alan Gilbert as the teeny, tiny maestro of the NY Phil. Photo: Stephanie Berger|
The orchestra, led by Alan Gilbert, was set up in the pattern of a flower, with orchestra platforms and audience tiered sections alternating like petals. In the central hub was placed a small dais for Gilbert, or a few soloists, surrounded by floor seating for the audience, all facing toward the center. It was impressive if a little creepy, perhaps unintentionally emphasizing the power of the orchestra's artistic director. Some musicians were also positioned in the catwalks.
The program started off with a largely improvised fanfare, Gabrieli's Canzon XVI, which felt appropriate to the grandeur and history of the hall, the brass notes pinging brightly around the space. Pierre Boulez's Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna for Orchestra in Eight Groups (1974-75) took advantage of the volume, as notes and percussion beats seemed to ricochet off the walls and cluster in unexpected coordinates. Despite the relative informality compared to the Phil's home hall of Avery Fisher, the sense of occasion felt heightened in this work.
When we entered the hall, we were greeted with preening, poshly dressed people, the women in Marie Antoinette wigs, lined up before a red, backlit wall. A bit further in, under the bleacher bowels, were more characters, lounging and observing us trooping in. These were the chorus members for Mozart's Don Giovanni finale to Act I, from the Oratorio Society of New York and the Manhattan School of Music Chamber Choir. It's understandable how this excerpt must have appealed for its inherent theatricality and staging turmoil, but the vastness of the Drill Hall subsumed the sung lines of many of the singers. Keith Miller (Leporello) was able to take command with his strong projection and charisma. And despite the novelty of placing soloists in the far reaches of the bleachers, and moving the chorus in sweeping circles around the rotunda, the artifice fell short.
The keystone of the program was Stockhausen's Gruppen for Three Orchestras (1955-57). You could see why this piece was the ostensible inspiration for the evening, with its highly specific set-up requiring three conductors (Gilbert plus Matthias Pintscher and Magnus Lindberg) who are able to watch one another. Listening to it, I could visualize the notes rising above us and forming a sort of alternate universe of their own in the space. And when one chord chased its way through the three orchestras in succession, it felt like a rendition of the Doppler effect.
A small percentage of the audience made an exodus after the Stockhausen, which was obviously their reason for coming, but they missed the most beautiful work of the program: Ives' The Unanswered Question, a shimmering meditation that came across as both simple and vastly complex. It was the punctuation to an evening of possibilities and experiments for the venerable Philharmonic, and another success for the Armory.