Critic's notebook: ‘Gruppen' surround-sounds New York

Rendering of "Philharmonic 360," a co-presentation of the New York Philharmonic at the Park Avenue Armory. Courtesy New York Philharmonic
Rendering of "Philharmonic 360," a co-presentation of the New York Philharmonic at the Park Avenue Armory. Courtesy New York Philharmonic
Posted: July 03, 2012

Many eyes in the symphonic world were on conductor Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic over the weekend as he created his most daring project yet: a concert of surround-sound works that included excerpts from Mozart's Don Giovanni, but more significant, one of the avant-garde Everests of the orchestral literature, Karlheinz Stockhausen's Gruppen.

Besides being a logistical feat, the project had true event status in a city where even everyday life can be an event. The two performances were sold out weeks in advance. Medici TV offers a free video stream starting at 2 p.m. Friday for 90 days (www.medici.tv). Anticipation for the concert ran so high that my walking in the door carrying a Gruppen score from the Free Library made me several new best friends.

By the end, I'd happily have given it away were it mine to give: Stockhausen had been demystified in the opposite of the desired direction — and not just because new technology had leached the surround-sound of novelty. As much as he was the most ceaseless, fearless musical explorer among the late-20th-century avant-gardists, Gruppen was not his most durable piece. On Saturday, it came off as a cul-de-sac not worth the heroic effort needed to play it.

The fact that such disappointment hardly deflated the overall experience is the takeaway lesson. Though ostensibly the main attraction, Gruppen accounted for only 25 minutes of a two-hour-plus concert. More important, the alternative venue rebooted audience expectations: The concert wasn't just off the Lincoln Center campus, but actually at the Park Avenue Armory — a special-event space that jams preconceived notions.

And it was done with style. The program was snazzily titled "Philharmonic 360." About 1,400 listeners were positioned on the floor and in bleachers in the armory's drill hall surrounded by as many as eight instrumental groups. During the Act I finale from Don Giovanni, singers — many wearing extravagant riffs on 18th-century wigs — moved through the space as numerous plot strands converged with a cumulative effect that Stockhausen would have been wise to take note of. What did all that — plus Pierre Boulez's Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna and some antiphonal Gabrieli brass music — add up to?

Plenty. For years, I've tried to make sense of Boulez's Rituel, but was confounded by its lack of linear progression on recordings. In fact, the piece was written to correspond with itself spatially, among the aforementioned eight instrumental groups that call out to each other from one area of the hall to another. That's very different from the usual parade of musical ideas. And since Boulez is a sensualist, each of the instrumental groups operated with a distinctive sound and purpose, even if you weren't immediately sure what that purpose was. Rather miraculously, the spatial element revealed how Boulez built a sense of conclusion and finality with increasing use of silence.

In contrast, Gruppen seemed guided by more internal motivation that, for much of its duration, seemed like three different planets minding their own business, enjoined only by a common solar system. Of course, there are internal links that delight musical analysts. And, later on, the piece has arresting brass writing created by the three-orchestra interaction, as well as an exhilarating, cacophonous climax. But in contrast to later, more hypnotic Stockhausen works such Stimmung, the mid-1950s Gruppen asks you to take its compositional alchemy on faith — because it's not apparent to the naked ear.

With the rise in overall performance standards, Gruppen is no longer a mass of sound that immediately puts your ears on overload. In fact, the New York Philharmonic's performance was as clean as can be — thanks, no doubt, to the noted composers Magnus Lindberg and Matthias Pintscher conducting the other two orchestras — effectively lifting a veil from the piece, allowing the conclusion that there's less in it than what meets the ear. Later, when Stockhausen began writing a massive cycle of plotless operas, each named after a day of the week, one critic described the works as a great musical mind talking to itself. Perhaps this obscure dialogue began with Gruppen.

Poor Stockhausen died in 2007 at 79 with much of his equity already used up. Well before he alienated the world by declaring the 9/11 tragedy to be "the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos," he had bought back his Deutsche Grammophon recordings, making them marginally available, at prices that discourage the curious.

So the usual dissemination process — in which a composer's aesthetic is absorbed by others and later reflected back at its source — hasn't happened for Stockhausen. The jury is still out. And that's why conductor Gilbert was right to make Gruppen the main attraction whether it deserved to be: The piece is still ripe for discovery. And that creates an event.

Contact David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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