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Look inside the Park Avenue Armory's new “Goldberg” Variations

Written by
Kurt Gottschalk

Our classical editor answers some hard-hitting questions about the new staging of the “Goldberg” Variations at the Park Avenue Armory.

So what's happening at the Armory?
Pianist Igor Levit and artist Marina Abramovic are hosting a series of performances of Bach's “Goldberg” Variations. Levit performs the music, while Abramovic orchestrates the presentation inside the Armory's massive open space. It's a classical-music concert, mainly, but one with a conceptual spin.

I’ve heard of Bach, but who is this Goldberg?
Johann Gottlieb Goldberg was the house musician of Saxony’s 16th-century Count Kaiserling, who suffered from insomnia. According to legend, Bach was commissioned to write music for Goldberg to play to help lull the nobleman to sleep. For a number of reasons, however, most Bach scholars now believe the story to be inaccurate. For one, it’s unlikely the young Goldberg (14 at the time) would have been able to play the roughly hour-long set of 32 complex pieces. Pianist Igor Levit, who just released an excellent three-CD version of the “Goldberg” Variations, along with sets by Beethoven and Frederic Rzewski, will have no such issues.

Wait, am I going to fall asleep during this?
You might. Bach was a master of the Baroque, which in a nutshell, was more concerned with representing the complexity of God’s creation than expressing personal emotion. Some people find the deeply embedded logic of Bach’s music relaxing, while to others, it’s as invigorating as a game of speed chess. But if you do fall asleep, no one will hold it against you. Audience members will be asked to put their cell phones and other electronic devices in lockers so they won’t be distracted, and for the first 30 minutes, everyone will sit in silence wearing noise-canceling headphones.

Okay, whose bright idea was that?
Artist Marina Abramovic designed the environment, which will include a mechanism that will allow the piano to move through the audience in the space’s drill hall. She’ll also be present for a discussion about the project on December 13.

And why are they doing all this if the story about the Goldberg kid isn’t true?
The legend has become part of the fabric of the piece, and over the years, performers have conceived of the Goldbergs in all sorts of situations and with a variety of instruments. Originally for a two-keyboard harpsichord, it’s been arranged for an orchestra, a synthesizer and even a jazz trio. Abramovic and Levit are simply offering up a promising new variation.

“Goldberg” takes place at the Park Avenue Armory December 7 to December 19 at various times; $65.

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