The concert hall, the rock club, the opera house, the arena, the HD live stream—all have served to flatten sound. But it wasn’t always thus, and needn’t continue to be so. That was the moral of the New York Philharmonic’s concert on Saturday, “Philharmonic 360,” which took place at the Park Avenue Armory, a cavernous repurposed shell on the Upper East Side whose walls are thin enough that you could hear passing sirens. It was set up circularly, with tiers of seating alternating with small stages (and in the middle, a ring of seats on the floor), so that orchestra was interwoven with audience. (You walked right by musicians to get your seats, passed them as they moved through the same aisles as you to get to their “backstage.” We all left through the same door.) Even more musicians were situated on platforms high above. It was stereophony, live in concert, and the results were thrilling and kind of liberating, challenging my presumptions about live music; turns out it’s amazing when music occupies not just time but also space! Why aren’t all Philharmonic concerts like this? And, for that matter, all concerts everywhere?
Well, for starters, not all music is written with space in mind. The program notes that spatial manipulation was a part of medieval chants, a consideration through to late 16th-century Venice. (The evening began effectively with an off-program performance of Gabrieli’s Canzon XVI, a baroque-sounding piece for three brass quintets.) “One of the defining characteristics of the Basilica of San Marco in Venice was architecture that supported the separation of performers into discrete units that could be stationed in various balconies around the church,” the program noted. But sound and its relation to space fell out of favor in subsequent centuries, although the Phil did include one example from that era: the finale to Act I of Don Giovanni, which features three separate dances layered atop each other. The staging was directed by Michael Counts, who helmed City Opera’s Monodramas last season, and it bore his signature look, attitude, and choreography—all haute and haughty. The actors didn’t just make use of the aisles—the aisles were the stage, which made for vivid and dynamic theater, if sonically problematic; it’s hard to hear singers who have their backs to you!
The concept was better executed after intermission, when the orchestra performed two classic works of modernism. Mozart notwithstanding, most of the evening’s program was built around new music, the centerpiece of which was Stockhausen’s Gruppen, rarely performed because it requires three orchestras positioned separately; they trade off short, sometimes overlapping segments. Stockhausen, a favorite composer of the 60s, was included on the cover of Sgt. Pepper. He’s trippy: this work was clangorous, abrasive, and intense, full of terrifying flashes of sound—shrieks of violins, crashes of percussion. (It put Boulez’s tedious Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna, on the first half of the program, to shame.) It seemed a logistical challenge as well: Alan Gilbert conducted one orchestra, while Magnus Lindberg and Matthias Pintscher conducted the other two, the three of them communicating not only with their musicians but also, across a large room, with each other.
But they pulled it off, and the evening ended with Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question, an astonishing, simple yet densely metaphorical work intended for off-stage strings and solo trumpets and flutes. The strings play a gorgeous and repeated series of chords, over which the horns and winds add surprising dissonances, a kind of unresolved, increasingly intense question-and-answer. It’s a perfect blend of old and new styles, straddling the divide between Romanticism and modernism. But even more amazing than the work itself? Hearing it in three dimensions—as live music that demanded to be experienced live.
Hear Leonard Bernstein conduct the Ives in 2D: