Welcome to the Jungle

Andy Battaglia on a tribute to Edgard Varèse at Lincoln Center

New York

Left: The stage at Alice Tully Hall on Monday. (Photo: Stephanie Berger) Right: Lincoln Center stairs. (Photo: Andy Battaglia)

APPIJIRA KAPI PARRA MARA NGALA. That’s how to say “Welcome” in the native Australian language of Warumungu, and the words happen to look very cool illuminated under a city sky at night. So too do frosted glass, falling water, and olive oil ice cream. But none of that constitutes an appropriate focal point for an evening at Lincoln Center. Such a prospective entity should be stately, austere. How about a schooled flutist playing a contemplative solo to a rapt and reverent audience . . . with shiny sequins on her shoes?

Last Monday and Tuesday, Lincoln Center was the setting for a two-night tribute to the avant-garde composer Edgar Varèse, and—even in the midst of music that was markedly harsh and bizarre—the complex felt like a strange sort of theme park. Though not, as convention might have it, in a bad way. The spirit of the place, inside and out, was wholesomely open to displays of both playfulness and pedantry. Everything felt part of a whole, enmeshed, so that the infectious glee of little kids stomping around on the plaza started to blur with the pensive considerations of elderly arts patrons ensconced inside.

Both were ubiquitous from the first steps onto the grounds, which turned out to be up a series of low-flung stairs fixed with digital message displays as part of an in-progress renovation led by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Some of the messages noted coming performances for the night; others made a show of saying “Welcome” with different words. (Hence the Warumungu, one of what had to be hundreds of languages in play.) Around the stairs hovered smartly aligned panes of frosted glass, the judicious use of which give the new renovation a disarmingly sharp and clean sense of style.

The real hub of activity for summer at Lincoln Center remained Revson Fountain, a reconfigured centerpiece that proved surprisingly unruly—nearly anarchic at times. As in: It splashed all over the place, often to the sound of shrieks and sometimes on the clothes of concertgoers who could read “pianissimo fermata” in the previous weekend’s New York Times preview and not need to be told what it means. There have been problems with new wind sensors meant to minimize errant spray, but everyone who gathered around—even those poised for pursed indignation—seemed to like how wild it was, to appreciate the thrill of a genuine surprise in such an institutional setting.

This would have pleased Edgar Varèse, no doubt. The composer spent a good part of his working life in New York, where he wrote a singular body of music that seems to account for much of the commotion and confusion the city churns out. He’s known for manhandled noise, but not solely: Varèse’s most famous piece, the sinuous and suggestive Poème Électronique, is famous for the way it introduced much of the world to wholly electronic music when it premiered at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958.

But even Poème Électronique has its jagged and fleshy aspects, evident when it opened the program at Alice Tully Hall on Monday. The eight-minute piece sounded confounding, as it always does, but even more curious, at the work’s conclusion, was the experience of an audience excitedly applauding an empty stage. (The music had simply been broadcast over the speakers.) From there, onward through Varèse’s work we went, with the International Contemporary Ensemble and So Percussion playing all manner of distended orchestral sounds and cranking sirens by hand. One piece, Density 21.5, featured a solo flutist who almost brought the house down and, with every little movement, shot off spangly rays of light from said sequined shoes. Another, Intégrales, made an old man sitting by himself in the balcony bellow, to no one in particular, “Amazing!” (This same old man wore a hearing aid that crackled with static when he took it out after Poème Électronique, for reasons I was tempted to inquire about but decided to leave to mystery. Likewise a guy with shifty eyes and greasy hair huddled in a corner during intermission, saying into his cell phone: “She’ll never get what she wants. They’ll never put that on 60 Minutes.”)

Tuesday night was a bigger and more ceremonious affair, even if the fashion on display only barely seemed to reflect the change. There was one woman in an elegant feathered headdress and a strapping man in brass-buttoned coat. But most of the crowd didn’t think more than casually about their night out at Avery Fisher Hall. The performance for the second evening was handled by the New York Philharmonic, which played to increasingly rapturous response a set that included highlights like the all-percussion (plus more whirring sirens) piece Ionisation, and Amériques, an early work that crashed and floated through an almost ridiculous store of energy and effect. In the program notes for the night, conductor Alan Gilbert asked, “Is there any piece more orgiastic than Amériques?” None that I could think of.

But there was still a bit of worthy sensation to come, this time by way of the Arte del Gelato stand set up outside. A line snaked back far, as the crowd made its way out to the plaza. The flavor to get, without question: olive oil. No single bite of it tastes much like olives, but somehow the way it coalesces, over an entire eating spent staring down the unruly fountain and soaking in Lincoln Center’s unexpectedly vital new atmosphere, does.