The New York Philharmonic has instituted an impressive initiative to commission 19 female composers in recognition of the centennial of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote in America. The second installment of the series, with new works by Joan La Barbara, Nicole Lizée and Paola Prestini, showed the curatorial interests to be as targeted and on point as the political sympathies behind them.

Kelley O'Connor and ensemble © Steven Pisano for Bachtrack
Kelley O'Connor and ensemble
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

The concert, which made orchestra members available for chamber settings, was held in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Appel Room, a venue that manages to be both intimate and stunning. The new works were paired with compositions from the 1960s by Luciano Berio and George Crumb, and in keeping with the cause (and as with all of the Project 19 concerts), select tickets were available for $19.

The evening began with Lizée’s Tears / Pillow. As a composer, she’s a fastidious borrower of themes and ideas; her Hitchcock and Kubrick études brilliantly rework scenes from both directors into abstract collages with her own soundtrack, dropping any pretense of story while maintaining the sense of suspense. For the new piece, she created her own source material in the form of a karaoke record played behind the ensemble (two cellists and a pair of percussionists playing glockenspiel, vibraphone, waterphone and cymbals, as well as bluntly striking the strings of acoustic guitars). An argument could be made that the karaoke formula represented the singer (perhaps a woman – Lizée modeled her karaoke track after 1960’s girl group records) being silenced – like, say, a woman not granted the right to participate in elections. But that wouldn’t be the whole of the story. She is a master of making the familiar disorienting, even unnerving; distinct 1- to 2-minute fragments over the karaoke conceit ensured not just musicality but momentum, maintaining a lively pace for its nine minutes.

Host (and violist) Nadia Sirota was quick to point out that it was only the anniversary of white women getting the vote, a distinction brought home in Joan La Barbara’s Ears of an Eagle; Eyes of a Hawk: In the Vortex. Dressed all in white – as many women in Congress have taken to doing to remember women’s suffrage – La Barbara dramatically intoned the names of women of color who fought for the abolition of slavery (for example, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman) over a score for piano, cello, percussion and prerecorded whispers. It was a stark contrast to Lizée’s, a lament, not so much for the people named as for the injustices that live on.

Kelley O'Connor © Steven Pisano for Bachtrack
Kelley O'Connor
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

Prestini’s Thrush Song incorporated the words of author and environmentalist Rachel Carson delivered both by Carson on tape and soprano Lucy Dhegrae, who proved a strong dramatic interpreter on top of her talents as a singer. Prestini played voice against strings, with percussion, to craft an exceptionally literate work. Thematic lines built in a coherent progression, phrases making paragraphs, resounding in a remarkable disruption. Prestini didn’t just give voice to another American heroine, but also to the birds that woman strived to save.

It could have seemed a bit of a dilution of the evening’s theme to include two men in the program had the pieces not been so strong: a pair of key works of contemporary art song from the 1960s. Both benefited from being sung by the wonderful mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, who can drop with ease into a rich alto and seemed quite comfortable in the role of coloratura. (Their inclusion also saved the concert from running barely half an hour.)

Before the expanse of windows overlooking 57th Street and the southern end of Central Park, it quickly felt during George Crumb’s Night of the Four Moons as if the whole building were taking flight. Passages of piccolo, chimes and thumb piano and, later, dual hammerings of banjo and tambourine have to be among the great alien world themes ever written for acoustic instruments. And cellist Patrick Jee’s gorgeously delicate amplified bowing filled the room, despite being barely audible.

Crumb’s Moons have enjoyed a small resurgence in the last year due to the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing, which inspired the composition. Berio’s Folk Songs, on the other hand, have never really lagged in popularity. Still, it was a wonder to hear it performed by members of the NY Phil; violist Robert Rinehart, flutist Yoobin Son, harpist Nancy Allen and guest clarinetist Stanley Drucker were all stunning. The ensemble, under the direction of Jeffrey Milarsky, gave the songs a playfulness and O’Connor injected cautious bits of character, with the finesse of a figure skater.

The evening avoided any statement on contemporary politics but there was a clear message for this election year, that voting is not just a right but a responsibility for a just society.

*****