So begins the fifth year of Alan Gilbert’s quest to make the New York Philharmonic the very model of a modern symphony orchestra: a concert in which the music director spent the vast majority of this time seated stock still; in which the luckier of the musicians spent most of their hours looking up at a big screen; and in which the audience spent most of their evening entranced by visuals and jump cuts rather than focused on dissonance and sonata form. Only a single composition was played through from beginning to end, and that lasted a notch or two less than ten minutes. And yet the buzz in the marble halls of Avery Fisher Hall was as tangible as it has been in some time, the crowd was younger and more eclectically dressed than ever before, and the reaction after three hours of 2001: A Space Odyssey went well beyond ecstatic.

New York Philharmonic © Chris Lee
New York Philharmonic
© Chris Lee

The future on screen, the future in the concert hall? Perhaps, but by opening this new season with a film week, Alan Gilbert has certainly blazed a daring trail. (Excerpts from Alfred Hitchcock films were shown and played earlier in the week, to considerably less fanfare.) Screening a film with live musical accompaniment is hardly a new idea. Indeed, under the watchful eye of Warner Bros, the British Film Institute and Southbank Centre, similar performances of 2001: A Space Odyssey have already taken place in various parts of the United Kingdom and Australia, with the orchestral role taken by the Philharmonia Orchestra, the Sydney Symphony, and even the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. But with the hype currently swirling around Gilbert’s tenure on Broadway, this first performance of two might be hailed in some quarters as almost as revolutionary as Stanley Kubrick’s transfixing masterpiece.

Dispatching with Alex North’s soundtrack in post-production, and spurred by his wife’s fortuitous hearing of György Ligeti’s Atmosphères on the BBC, 2001 features a patchwork of recordings so powerful that the late Roger Ebert went so far to write that Kubrick’s film is “almost unique in enhancing the music by its association with his images.” Committed listeners to Ligeti and Richard Strauss might disagree – and certainly upon first viewing, the great Hungarian modernist did – but one need only consult the cosmic album artwork for major recordings of, say, Also sprach Zarathustra to see how lasting Kubrick’s imagery has proved. Approaching the film for the first or the umpteenth time, the visual and aural links amaze. Sometimes this is profound, whether in the way the Kyrie from Ligeti’s Requiem insists upon the religious connotations of the eerie black monoliths, or in the way Atmosphères more heavily underlines it with its blocks of strands, recalling the choral polyphony of five centuries ago to show passage to the future, on in the way the film’s four panels ape the classical symphony’s four movements. Sometimes, of course, the links require little deeper understanding, but who wouldn’t enjoy how Kubrick allows Strauss’ An die schönen, blauen Donau to spin its waltzes as weightlessly as a pen hovering in space?

In live performance, though, the music presents other challenges. Kubrick compiled specific recordings in his editing process, taking the Ligeti excerpts from various German radio copies, and Also sprach Zarathustra and An die schönen, blauen Donau from Herbert von Karajan LPs (insisting, discerningly but vainly, that it ought to be Karajan’s recording on the soundtrack release rather than Karl Böhm’s). To maintain continuity, Alan Gilbert therefore had to deploy skills different to those he usually fields. Tempi had to be kept similar, if not identical, to those old recordings. Not for nothing spun a large digital clock at the top of the conductor’s music stand, as Gilbert’s precision in cutting musicians off for at least one of Kubrick’s cuts showed.

Yet some of Gilbert’s characteristic traits still shone through. Although Atmosphères could really have done with more time to unfold its single breath, it nevertheless sounded as transparent as the space it evoked. Nothing more than gusto was needed for Richard Strauss’ primeval C major, and gusto it got in spades, particularly from braying brass. Otherwise, the music might have been more focused, particularly when it involved Musica Sacra. In the Requiem and Lux aeterna, the choir sang from the balconies along the side of the hall, and splitting them apart neutered Ligeti’s effects.

The frisson of live action certainly renewed Kubrick’s film, although it remains, for me, entrancingly boring rather than a metaphysical statement on the silver screen. But will the audience return? And why has it taken a movie for the Philharmonic to perform any of Ligeti’s Requiem before, not to mention Atmosphères, a crucial piece of 20th-century music, for the first time in 45 years? Now those are mysteries on a cosmic scale.