New York Philharmonic – Jaap van Zweden conducts Dvořák 7 & Joan Tower’s 1920 / 2019; Emanuel Ax plays Mozart’s Piano Concerto K453

Joan Tower
1920 / 2019
Piano Concerto No.17 in G, K453
Symphony No.7 in D-minor, Op.70

Emanuel Ax (piano)
New York Philharmonic
Jaap van Zweden

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 7 December, 2021
Venue: Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

With this program’s opener, Joan Tower’s 1920 / 2019, the New York Philharmonic resumed Project 19, an initiative commissioning nineteen women to compose chamber and orchestra works to celebrate the centenary of the passage of the nineteenth amendment to the US Constitution, which extended voting rights to women. The piece’s palindrome-like title references two years – the first the one in which the amendment was ratified; the second in which the Me Too Movement came to the fore.

Tower’s luminous and accessible score is highly rhythmic and vibrantly textured. Opening with a strongly throbbing, steadily repeated note, the heavily percussive composition traverses a broad-ranging musical landscape, constantly changing tempo and texture. Scored for a huge orchestra, it is optimistic in spirit, offering many moments for individual players to shine, as did Carter Brey in his exquisitely mellow cello solo, and Sheryl Staples with her graceful work on violin. Jaap van Zweden’s energetic conducting elicited a vigorous, sparkling performance, successfully highlighting the contrasts in the restless and colorful music, and showing off the Philharmonic at its very best.

Then Emanuel Ax delivered an inspired and delicately expressive performance of K453. His playing was as jovial as desired, and at the same time very stylish and elegant. In the opening Allegro, he and the orchestra were in perfect accord, most notably in the passages where the woodwinds engaged in dialog with the piano. After a genial Andante came a high-spirited account of the virtuosic variation Finale, with the woodwinds making especially enchanting contributions. Ax used Mozart’s cadenzas in the first and second movements. In his hands they sounded fresh and fluid.  Last was Dvořák’s darkly-colored Seventh Symphony. In an idiomatic reading, Van Zweden managed to effectively convey the weight of this, the most somber and ambitious work in the Czech composer’s symphonic output, while also catching the more songlike and rhapsodic rhythms when required. The rustic third movement was particularly spirited and the Finale emerged as forceful and fully satisfying.

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