2020 is the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which gave women the right to vote. In honor of this event, the New York Philharmonic has undertaken to commission new work from nineteen female composers, in an initiative it calls “Project 19”. The first of these pieces, Tread Softly by Nina C. Young, premiered last night, in an auspicious kickoff to the series.

Jaap van Zweden conducts Tread Softly
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

Young described the piece in introductory comments as referring to the difficulty women can have having their voices heard. (The title is from the last line of a Yeats poem which reads in its entirety: “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams”.) Young’s long-standing interest in electronic music was evident at the outset; the piece began with a beautifully realized orchestral version of the kind of timbre-shifting sonic landscape one often hears in electronic art music, with barely-heard percussive rattles and whispers somehow drawing focus amid the texture. Incongruously pretty triads heralded a transition to more conventional orchestral writing, including interrupted bits of musical pastiche, most vividly a “gypsy dance” violin solo. These in turn collided with jagged dissonances, sinuous woodwind textures, and a return to the opening textures. While I liked the piece a great deal – and Jaap van Zweden and the orchestra gave it an enthusiastic and entirely convincing performance – at the end I felt that I had heard a 25-minute work crammed into ten minutes, that the music had more to say than it had time for. Given the subject matter, perhaps that was the point.

Carter Brey and the New York Philharmonic
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

Young’s premiere shared the bill with two pieces from the 18th century. Philharmonic principal cellist Carter Brey was the soloist in Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C major. He began the performance by sitting relaxed and cross-legged while waiting for the orchestral exposition to finish, looking as if he were in his home or office rather than onstage. Brey played with vigor and undeniable virtuosity, seeming most in his element during the athletic sections of the fast movements’ development sections and the first movement’s cadenza. However, he and the orchestra seemed to be in two completely different worlds during those movements. Van Zweden and the orchestra played with elegance and crystalline clarity; Brey attacked the music as though he were telling a rude joke. Moreover, Brey was noticeably ahead of the orchestra throughout both of the fast movements, which was distracting. (Soloist and orchestra seemed more in sync during the Adagio.) Also, while I am perfectly willing to attribute this to some combination of the hall’s notorious acoustics and my particular seat, I heard Brey’s tone throughout as either reedy or rough.

The soloists for Mozart’s Mass in C minor were placed behind the orchestra, in front of the chorus, rather than in front as Brey had been. This was a better solution for the hall; I had no trouble hearing the soloists at all, and their voices all sounded rich and varied. Soprano Miah Persson sang her solos, notably the opening Kyrie and the Incarnatus est, with a steely authority, yet conveying a warmth and compassion that fit perfectly with the elegiac weight of the orchestral playing. Susanna Phillips, a last minute substitution for a sick Amanda Majeski (who was to have made her Philharmonic debut), sang the other soprano line. Phillips’ sound is very round and dark, almost mezzo-like, but in the Laudamus te this proved no obstacle to the clarity of the figuration. Both sopranos negotiated the piece’s wide leaps and extreme low notes with ease and musicality. The tenor and bass soloists have little to do in this work; Nicholas Phan and Andrew Foster-Williams acquitted themselves admirably in their brief moments in the spotlight. The Concert Chorale of New York was in fine form, delivering the learned-style counterpoint with clarity and precision, but also changing tone colors on a dime for dramatic effect during the more typically Mozartian movements; their shaping of the “miserere” sections of the Qui tollis is probably what will stay with me the longest from this performance.