Last Friday night, the New York Philharmonic opened its concert with a new work. The conductor, Jaap van Zweden, just came out and conducted it. He did not speak about the work first, nor did he (or someone else) have the composer come out to speak about it. The orchestra just . . . played it, without prior talk or advocacy. The advocacy was in the playing.
A Christmas miracle, early.
The work is by Joan Tower, the American composer born in 1938. Its title is 1920 / 2019. In the first of those years, American women were granted the right to vote. In the second of them, the #MeToo movement came to the fore. Our program notes said, “Tower has long been recognized as a feminist voice in classical music.” Fair enough. But does music know it is feminist? Music without words, that is?
Because I know the title, and because I read the program notes, I know that the new work is supposed to be “about” women’s rights. But nothing in the music tells you that. How could it (without words)? It could be about a voyage, a romance, or a ham sandwich (a very good one). It is a piece for orchestra.
Toscanini was once asked, “What does the first movement of the ‘Eroica’ Symphony mean?” He answered, “Allegro con brio in E flat.”
In a composer’s note—a written statement—Joan Tower says this about 1920 / 2019: “It is a piece largely about rhythm and texture (hopefully) set in a dramatic and organic narrative.” Smart—as is the piece itself.
It begins with percussion, right away—violent percussion. Percussion will play a prominent role throughout. I have often said that you could call the current era in composition “The Age of Anxiety” or “The Age of Percussion,” one or the other. Tower’s piece is colorful, transparent—chamber-like. The cello has an extended solo, as will the violin, as will the clarinet (as I recall). Important, exciting things are going on. There is an inexorability—complete with timpani beats (that tried-and-true method of conveying inexorability). Toward the end, the music is almost anthemic, or celebratory.
The piece is the right length, too (about fifteen minutes), having an arc. It is expertly—I want to say brilliantly—crafted. It is a brainy work, and also a stirring one.
Frankly, 1920 / 2019 is one of the best new pieces, in any genre, I have heard in recent years. I look forward to hearing it again. And I bet it will have a long life—that it will outlive the youngest person in the hall, whoever he or she was. Joan Tower is a composer to stand up and cheer for, as many of us did on Friday night.
Next we heard a Mozart concerto—a piano concerto, one of his best, the one in G major, K. 453. The pianist was Emanuel Ax, the veteran pianist. Before I get to him, I wish to say something about the conductor, Van Zweden: he gave the score the life within it. This music, like Mozart at large, will not play itself. (Lots of music, of different kinds, will.) You must lift the notes from the page and let them live. This, Van Zweden does.
So did Emanuel Ax. His playing was full of character, and intelligence—musical intelligence. He was decorous, yes. He was also bold. In my experience, Ax is sometimes too retiring, too modest—self-effacing to a fault. In the G-major concerto, he was rightly assertive. His phrasing was supple, as usual. The music had its geniality, slyness, and charm. In the middle movement, the songful effusions were marvelous. And the Finale rocked and scampered along.
Emanuel Ax, in a word, was Mozartean, which is a very good thing to be, in Mozart.
The concert ended with a Dvořák symphony—the one in D minor, the one that has that dance, the furiant, in the third movement. Under Van Zweden’s baton, it swung (to use an American word from our jazz years). About the first movement, I would like to make a point—a point that applies to other portions of the symphony as well.
Often, this music is blowsily Romantic. And blowsy Romanticism is not uncalled for. But Van Zweden also lent the music some crunch and bite. The music is largely horizontal, if you will—but this conductor gave it some verticality too, which was very effective.
I have been saying in recent days that Van Zweden reminds me of Szell and Levine (who apprenticed under Szell). New Yorkers are lucky to hear this.