Stockhausen: Gruppen für drei Orchester
Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra
Oliver Knussen, Reinbert de Leeuw, and Robert Spano, conductors
Theatre-Concert Hall, August 25, 1993
Karlheinz Stockhausen's Gruppen was one of the defining avant-garde works of the 1950s, and the true believers acclaimed it as a masterpiece and a milestone in the history of music. It seemed like music's future, although it didn't turn out that way, and Stockhausen's star steadily dimmed. From today's point of view it is like a great obelisk created in the past, with "1958" chiseled on is base.
Relatively few people can back up the claims that were made for Gruppen back in the beginning on the basis of experiencing it in live performance. And although there have been six recordings, beginning with the live recording of the premiere issued on a famous Deutsche Grammophon LP with a blue cover, it is not a piece that any recording can communicate, because the effect depends on the listener's being seated surrounded on three sides by three orchestras playing independent but co-dependent music. After this Tanglewood performance, there was an immediate repeat, and Oliver Knussen, one of the conductors, urged members of the audience to choose a different seat because the piece feels and sounds very different, depending on your position and perspective. In that respect, it is like the alpine landscape Stockhausen was looking at when he composed this music - the landscape appears different from different angles of approach. This listener, who was present at the Tanglewood performances, felt as if he were seated under a large Alexander Calder mobile, aware not only of the movement of large metal objects but of shifts in the air and a complex interplay of light and shadow.
Gruppen is an extremely complex work that requires three full orchestras, three conductors, an unusual setup, unlimited rehearsal time, and a big budget - the performance here was subsidized in part by a generous grant from the Rex Foundation - otherwise known as The Grateful Dead, who are fans of Stockhausen's music. Before this Tanglewood performance, the three conductors, Knussen, Reinbert de Leeuw, and Robert Spano, even had several "silent'' rehearsals, without an orchestra present, so that they could solve several issues arising from Stockhausen's superimposition of conflicting rhythms.
The piece is of course a sonic spectacular, like the Berlioz Requiem, with its brass choirs placed at the points of the compass. Hearing parts of it is a visceral experience, but the piece is also subtle and the listener becomes aware of the awesome precision of Stockhausen's ear and imagination, of a vein of lyricism, a sense of whimsy amid the intensities and explosions, and even of a sense of fun - a brass "locomotive" making its way around the circle; when one was seated in the middle of the circle, the same passage was terrifying. From the perspective of a seat in the back, one was more conscious of the coalescences in Gruppen,of its being one piece instead of three, simultaneously played and interactive.
Stockhausen composed it between 1955 and 1957 when he was in his late 20's and early 30's; he was one of the conductors for the world premiere in 1958 (along with Pierre Boulez and Bruno Maderna). In the subsequent half-century the piece has rarely been performed, for obvious reasons, and every performance has been an event. One memorable one took place in 2008 in an abandoned hangar in the old Berlin airport, and the subdivided Berlin Philharmonic played under the direction of Simon Rattle, Daniel Harding, and Michael Boder.
This is hardly the place to go into the complex technical processes through which the music was created, but it is perhaps worth quoting one of Stockhausen's own remarks about the music. "From time to time the two or three groups come closer and closer until they meet in the same rhythm of sound and become transformed. One receives the other into itself. Or plays with it. Extinguishes it. They fall apart or cling together. Or they coalesce . . ." This sounds like nothing less than the story of all our lives, which is how listening to Gruppen felt.
The Tanglewood performance was a memorable and emotional occasion because it marked the end of the tenure of Oliver Knussen after seven summers of supervising contemporary music activity at Tanglewood; by the end of the encore performance of Gruppen the audience was shouting "Ol-ly" along with the players. Of course Knussen, who was a Fellow of the Tanglewood Music Center when he was still a teenager, is still never far away and has been a frequent and regular guest over the last 20 years. Reinbert de Leeuw, the Dutch pianist and new-music guru, was the second conductor, and he was Knussen's successor as director of contemporary music at Tanglewood. Robert Spano, then 33, was in his final season as assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and about to strike out on his own; in 2000 he was named music director of the Atlanta Symphony, which has been home base for a career that has taken him all over America and Europe. He has intermittently been involved with Tanglewood over the years, whenever his other commitments permitted, and this summer he takes over as director of the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado.
"One of the excitements of Gruppen was sharing the excitement of the participants. The disposition of the performers gave the audience a rare opportunity to see the three conductors from the vantage point of the players. Like the music, the conductors were a study in interactive contrasts - Reinbert de Leeuw, kindly, professorial, and completely on top of things; Oliver Knussen, genial, focused, and demanding; and Robert Spano, ferocious in concentration and kinetic in attack. The players egged one another on, and there was a healthy spirit of competition among the orchestras. Orchestra 3 made a ballpark wave for Spano, and orchestra 1 started the annual enthusiastic chant for 'Ol-ly!'"
-Richard Dyer, Boston Globe
"Break loose it did. Widely spread woodwind-and-string chord rubbed itchy shoulders with harp and marimba. In a sudden calm, the heaviest brass played their softest counterpoints. In all three orchestras, strings and harp pretended to behave gently as well. Then the orchestra on our left smashed in with loud winds and percussion, precisely cuing in the other bands to join the ruckus. Along the way two stars within the second orchestra especially shone: Max Levinson, one of Tanglewood's most wizardly piano students, flashing brilliantly on high and producing primal low tones; and nonstudent composer Michael Gandolfi making his electric guitar dance giddily and sing throatily. . . A little farther down the road, brasses from all three ensembles plunged into a sort of hockey game, the puck of principal pitch careening at top speed from corner to corner and all manner of fake, non-puck objects getting in the way hilariously. (So much for German composers' alleged lack of humor.) Then came apocalypse time: the heaviest brass in chord-swells from orchestra to orchestra, each chord beginning very soft, growing very loud, then dying off. While one orchestra's brass was hitting the peak of its chord, the net group's soft start was inaudible, then hit its own peak. . . I hate to tell you this, but the brass stadium-wave was not quite the climax of Gruppen. That came with the second half of the apocalypse: a crazy eruption from 12 percussionists operating wood and skin drums, cowbells, gongs, and dozens of other beatables. And finally, orchestra two was left all by its lonesome, going soft and softer into a horn's sustained middle D-sharp, supported by a distant cowbell, and then breaking off for possibly the shortest, softest horn note in the repertory -one flicked G (for Gruppen?) and out."
-Leighton Kerner, Village Voice
" . . .It was impossible, in listening to Gruppen, to simply attend to the music. Nor, if one did, would the results have been very satisfying or moving. The music created its impact not through a linear plot, but through an accumulation of often thrilling and exotic instants. The goal was the creation of a musical universe, one that was miscellaneous, wide ranging and huge. In the score's final unbarred measure, just after an almost whimsical pianissimo by a horn, the words 'Deo Gratia' appear, offering thanks to the deity for his aid in constructing a rival world. One observed it with a kind of astonishment. Everything was immense: the ambitions, the labors, the concentration of the three conductors, the range of sounds, the sense of surrounding space. Mr. Stockhausen has not written a profound piece, but its theatrics did create a kind of wonder. Gruppen seems intended to recreate an almost childlike sense of scale in space and sound. . . "
-Edward Rothstein, New York Times