The New York Philharmonic resumed its laudable “Project 19”, which celebrates the centenary of women’s suffrage in the US by commissioning female composers, with a world premiere of a 14-minute piece by Joan Tower. 1920/2019 (it’s a palindrome if you render the 2nd date as “twenty-nineteen”) elevates the end of the century to parity with the beginning by virtue of its being “the height of the #MeToo movement”.

Joan Tower, Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic
© Chris Lee

It’s a dramatic and engaging work, full of color, restless energy and optimism. Climbing motifs run throughout, both as scales and as pyramidal chords. Brass chords swell like suspense movie cues; repeated notes hammer through shifting meters; occasional wispy clouds of trills offer a moment’s respite before plunging back into the fray. There are a dizzying array of textures and timbres, including solos, duets and a percussion section feature among all of the more heavily orchestrated passages. Yet the piece has an unforced narrative coherence. While I doubt that even in the composer’s mind there’s any correspondence with specific events, the sense of being led through a century of history was palpable. The piece ends on high floating notes, evoking the promise of a better tomorrow.

There is sometimes a sense of struggle between conductor and soloist in a concerto; one senses that different conceptions of the piece were not entirely worked out in rehearsal. Emanuel Ax and Jaap van Zweden, however, were entirely in accord in this performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 17 in G major. Rhythms in the first movement were bouncy and danceable, and melodies were sharp-edged and crystalline from both Ax and the orchestra. In passages where the solo part was all figuration, Ax chose to play softly, accompanying the orchestral foreground rather than competing with it, a lovely touch. The Andante was much more fluid, and even skirted the edge of flaccidity, but the Allegretto restored the momentum, and both the dreaminess of the minor variation and the swagger of the final Presto were remarkable.

Emanuel Ax, Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic
© Chris Lee

I’m not convinced that the first two pieces were felicitously programmed as companions for Dvořák's Seventh Symphony. The brass is relegated to a supporting role in this piece, and van Zweden kept them on a very short leash. After the Tower, the climaxes were comparatively unfulfilling, no matter how incisively the strings and woodwinds played. I had high hopes for van Zweden’s take on the piece during the first few minutes, which played up the darkness of the first theme, and gave even the syrupy second theme a desperate tinge; but eventually sentimentality won out. Clarity of texture was also not as strong as in the Mozart, with low strings often overpowered. The danse macabre-like sections of the third movement were delightful, however, and the more celebratory material that ends the symphony was appropriately triumphant and rewarding. 

***11