THE WALL STREET JOURNAL - ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT
SEPTEMBER 24, 2008

Stockhausen Takes Flight at Tempelhof
By A.J. GOLDMANN

Berlin - Sunday night's concert by the Berlin Philharmonic of Karlheinz Stockhausen's Gruppen für drei Orchester at Berlin's historic Tempelhof Airport was more than just another concert. The performance felt like a requiem for Tempelhof, which will close at the end of October.

Tempelhof Airport opened in 1923 in the center of Berlin but was expanded drastically during the Third Reich. Today the main building is one of the most monumental examples of surviving fascist architecture, along with the old Reich Air Ministry building. Tempelhof was taken by the Soviets during the Battle of Berlin. Three years later, in 1948, it was used as the airbase of the U.S.-led Berlin Airlift during the blockade of West Berlin. Nowadays, only a handful of small private and commercial planes (mostly regional) use it daily. Amid financial burdens and plans to expand one of the city's international airports, the city voted to pull the plug on Tempelhof.

On Sunday evening, well-dressed couples walked past the imposing limestone façade -- with its neon sign, massive windows and stern eagles -- to a hangar that had been converted into a concert hall for the evening's performance.

Stockhausen, who died last year at the age of 79, wrote Gruppen between 1955 and 1957. The work is scored for 109 musicians divided into three groups, which surround the audience in a horseshoe formation. It runs about 25 minutes. The premiere of Gruppen, exactly 50 years ago, was held in Cologne. Conducting the performance then was the 29-year-old Stockhausen along with fellow composers Pierre Boulez and Bruno Maderna. Each ensemble plays at a different tempo. Given the demands the work places on musicians and conductors and the difficulty of finding a suitable venue, it is rarely performed. The last major performance of Gruppen in the U.S. was held 15 years ago at Tanglewood.

"It's a Mount Everest piece," says Richard Toop, a Stockhausen expert, in a telephone interview. "It's a festival piece. You need rehearsal time and you need conductors who know what they're doing and how to work together. The different tempi and speeds need to be synchronized. It's a shock to the system."

Music scholars use words like "revolutionary" to describe Gruppen. It has been claimed that the work is as important to the second part of the 20th century as Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" was to the first. In fact, Stravinsky was himself among the piece's early admirers. "Stravinsky admired two things about Gruppen," Mr. Toop clarifies: "First was the sound of the orchestra, because it sounds like no piece before it. Secondly, Stravinsky was fascinated by its sheer complexity of rhythmic structures."

Both the composer's youth and the work's elaborate scale, uncommon among the avant-garde compositions of the time, magnified Gruppen's impact. Part of what still makes Gruppen exciting is how unpredictable it is, even to audiences familiar with multidimensional performance. "The three groups combine to produce an extraordinary, entropic mass of sound," Mr. Toop explains. He contends that one need not understand Gruppen's complex structure to appreciate it: "It's almost better if one doesn't attempt to listen in a particular way. It's a 'go with the flow' piece."

The sold-out concerts on Saturday and Sunday were not the first appearances by Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic in the 15,000-square-foot Hangar 2. The orchestra briefly relocated to the hangar last season after a fire at the Philharmonie, the orchestra's home.

On the program, the Stockhausen was performed twice. Audiences had the opportunity to switch seats between performances. For a work as multidimensional as this, your perception changes drastically depending on where you are placed. Not only is Gruppen THX surround sound avant la lettre, but it also makes music into an interactive experience.

An earlier performance by the Ensemble Intercontemporain was interrupted by the intermittent din of helicopters and jet engines. Luckily the runways were clear in time for Gruppen, either by fortune or design.

Daniel Harding and Michael Boder joined Sir Simon at the podiums. They faced the audience as the musicians played with their backs to the crowd, which added a dramatic visual component to the performance. The coordination and rhythmic precision was laudable, but perhaps most striking was how accessible the piece sounded. The opening string passages seemed more lyrical than anxious. Throughout, the constantly shifting balance of sound and textures was fluid and organic. The famous moment where a single chord is ricocheted from orchestra to orchestra, creating the illusion of sound bending across the hall, was dizzying and forceful.

Though the threat of chaos hovered in the air, the musicians reined in the cacophony, diffusing it with control and even humor. Hints of mambo and rock 'n' roll came from the extensive percussion, and jazz riffs bubbled up in the horns. Gruppen is a challenging work, no doubt, but one sign of the Philharmonic's success was how few empty seats there were during the encore performance.

There are many suggestions for the future uses of Tempelhof and its massive airfield -- ranging from luxury condos to an ice-skating ring -- but so far no concrete plans. For Berlin's sake, let's hope for something as original and unpredictable as the work performed over the weekend. Gruppen's message of radical originality is left to inspire us. As Mr. Toop explains, "If Stockhausen knew that something had been done by somebody else, he didn't want to do it."

Mr. Goldmann writes on culture from Berlin and New York.