Tune-In Festival/ARCO, Park Avenue Armory, New York

Music in New York doesn’t just happen in opera houses and concert halls. Some of the most stimulating events take place in unorthodox locales. Among these, the most challenging, most awkward and in many ways most imposing must be the massive – term used advisedly – Park Avenue Armory.

Completed in 1881, it originally served as the home of the seventh regiment of the US National Guard. Although loftier muses occasionally complemented military manoeuvres from the start, the Armory is now embarking on its first full season of artistic events designed to accommodate the inherent structural and acoustical quirks.

The physical quirks of the 55,000 sq ft drill hall are staggering. The unobstructed space, with its 85ft barrel-vault ceiling and split-level clerestories, has been compared, with some justification, to a 19th-century European railway terminal. The auditory quirks relate, virtually by definition, to echoes in the wide
open spaces.

On Wednesday, the Armory opened its first Tune-In Music Festival, an ambitious jeu d’esprit devoted to contemporary experiments and curated by the marvellously irreverent ensemble known as Eighth Blackbird. The pièce d’occasion turned out to be ARCO, a surprisingly mellow yet stubbornly complex essay in communal mysticism. The institution’s first-ever commission, it placed the tireless conductor Paul Haas and a reasonably conventional orchestra called Sympho on the floor, flanked by an appreciative audience on three sides. In the course of the 90-minute performance itinerant instrumentalists and singers popped up to enrich textures and attract attention in various distant perches.

Three composers – Haas, Paul Fowler and Bora Yoon – served, according to purple programme notes, as creative guides for “a modern creation myth that speaks of the human condition, at once a musical exploration of an architectural icon and a sonic voyage through time and space”. The score toyed neatly with disparate impulses from Arvo Pärt, Monteverdi, Beethoven, Pérotin and Byrd. The mix-and-match citations – melodic, harmonic and rhythmic – were obviously fraught with intellectual subtlety and evolutionary significance. For at least one witness it seemed most rewarding to just sit back, relax and enjoy the exotic ride.


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