Review: An Ambitious Project Returns at the Philharmonic

After a long delay, Joan Tower’s “1920/2019” was premiered on Friday by the New York Philharmonic at Alice Tully Hall. It was worth the wait to hear this 14-minute work by one of America’s most eminent composers — who, at 83, is as inventive as ever.

The piece is part of Project 19, the orchestra’s initiative to commission 19 female composers to honor the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which extended the vote to women. It began auspiciously in February 2020 with Nina C. Young’s “Tread softly” and, later that month, Tania León’s “Stride,” which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize this year.

Ellen Reid also got her work in under the wire before the pandemic shut down the performing arts. But with the premiere of Tower’s hurtling, dark new piece, Project 19 has finally resumed. Her title juxtaposes 1920, when the amendment was ratified, with 2019 — “another significant year for women,” as Tower writes in a program note, “the height of the #MeToo movement, which raised the status of women to yet another level.”

In her description Tower leaves the larger thematic resonances to listeners’ perceptions and focuses on the materials — steady repeated notes, chords, runs in scales and such — that drive the music. The piece begins with weighty blocks of orchestral chords heaving over kinetic rhythmic riffs. Rising runs and, soon, a persistent yet varying five-note motif keep spiraling forward. Imaginative writing for percussion and bustling rhythmic activity — long traits of Tower’s music — course through this restless, episodic score. On the surface the mood is ominous, even threatening. But the sheer intricacy lends a stirring fortitude to the music.

During a long later section, the piece becomes like a little concerto for orchestra, featuring star turns for instruments in solo, duo, trio and small ensemble groups. Some observers have found Tower’s lucid music accessible almost to a fault. A better word to describe this engrossing, effective piece — and her style overall — is audible: All the multilayered, meter-fracturing workings of the score are laid out clearly. The Philharmonic’s music director, Jaap van Zweden drew a glittering, moody performance from the orchestra.

Though the program didn’t make thematic or musical connections between Tower’s piece and the longer works that followed — Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 and Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony — it was a pleasure to hear both those classic scores in such winning performances. Emanuel Ax was the animated and elegant soloist in the Mozart.

The variety of his articulations and shadings was especially fine: sometimes crisp and sparkling, other times milky and subdued, as when the piano part shifts into wistful, minor-mode excursions during the sunny first movement. In the restrained, lyrical slow movement, Ax proved sensitive to Mozart’s evocations of his operatic aria style. The finale, a buoyant theme and variations, was splendidly stylish.

Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony is suffused with the breadth, lyricism and wayward approach to harmony of his hero, Brahms. Yet Dvorak’s distinctive, rustic voice pervades the score. The Philharmonic’s performance captured the engaging yet elusive quality of the episodic first movement, and the dancing, bucolic third movement was especially vibrant. Van Zweden summoned fervor and opulent sound in the teeming finale without slipping into overdrive, as he sometimes does. And the players finally seem to be adapting to Tully, one of their temporary homes as David Geffen Hall is renovated.

New York Philharmonic

Performed on Friday at Alice Tully Hall, Manhattan.

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