After a long delay, Joan Tower’s 1920/2019 premiered Friday at the New York Philharmonic in Alice Tully Hall. It was worth the wait to hear this 14-minute piece by one of America’s foremost composers, who at 83 is as inventive as ever.
The piece is part of Project 19, an orchestra initiative commissioned by 19 female composers to celebrate the centenary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. It all started in February 2020 with Nina K. Young’s “Do Gentle,” and later that month, “Stride” by Tanya Leon, who won the Pulitzer Prize this year.
Ellen Reed also fell into a trap until the pandemic stopped the performing arts. But with the premiere of a fast-paced, dark new piece, Project 19 has finally resumed. Its name juxtaposes 1920, when the amendment was ratified, with 2019 – “another landmark year for women,” as Tower writes in a policy note, “the peak of the #MeToo movement that has taken the status of women to new heights. “
In her description, Tower leaves broader thematic resonances for the listeners’ perception and focuses on the materials – constantly repetitive notes, chords, scales, etc. – that move the music. The piece begins with hefty blocks of orchestral chords flipping over kinetic rhythmic riffs. The upward jogging and, soon, the insistent but choppy five-note tune continues to evolve. Imaginative percussion composition and lively rhythmic activity – long lines of the Tower’s music – run through this hectic episodic soundtrack. At first glance, the mood is ominous, even threatening. But sheer complexity gives the music a tremendous resilience.
During the later part, the piece becomes like a small orchestral concerto, using star turns for instruments in solo, duo, trio and small ensemble groups. Some observers found the clear music of the Tower almost available to capacity. The best word to describe this gripping, spectacular piece – and its style in general – is heard: all the multi-layered, meter-tearing scores are laid out clearly. The Philharmonic’s music director Jaap van Zweden put on a brilliant, somber performance by the orchestra.
Although there was no thematic or musical connection between the Tower’s piece and the later longer pieces – Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 and Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony – it was gratifying to hear both of these classical scores in such victorious performances. Emanuel Ax was the lively and elegant soloist of Mozart.
The variety of his articulations and shades was especially beautiful: sometimes crisp and sparkling, sometimes milky and muted, for example, when the piano part changes into brooding secondary movements during the sunny first movement. In a restrained, lyrical slow movement, Ax has shown sensitivity to Mozart’s memories of his style of operatic aria. The finale, a lively theme with variations, is superbly stylish.
Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony is imbued with breadth, lyricism and a wayward approach to harmony by his hero Brahms. And yet Dvořák’s characteristic country voice permeates the music. The Philharmonic’s performance captured the captivating but elusive quality of the episodic first movement, while the danceable bucolic third movement was particularly flamboyant. Van Zweden evoked fervor and luxe sound in an exuberant finale without slipping into overdrive as he sometimes does. And the players seem to finally adjust to Tully, one of their makeshift homes, when David Geffen Hall is being renovated.
New York Philharmonic Orchestra
Performing Friday at Alice Tully Hall, Manhattan.