Commissioning women with NY Phil

Inspired by the centenary of the women’s right to vote in the US, New York Philharmonic tells Claire Jackson about its ‘vital’ commissioning project. 

When the BBC Proms announced that half of all new commissions will go to women composers by 2022, there was consternation among some members of the industry. Sally Cavender, vice-chairman of Faber Music, told The Telegraph in the UK that such a quota was unnecessary because there has been a “huge recent expansion of opportunities” for female composers and “the playing field is relatively level in terms of opportunities and encouragement.” According to Cavender, the BBC’s pledge to reach a 50/50 balance on new Proms commissions means that opportunities for talented men “will have to fade regardless of their talent or pre-eminence, given that there is only so much space in programmes for new music.”

Perhaps the UK needs to take a leaf out of the New York Philharmonic (NY Phil)’s book. The orchestra is dedicating swathes of programming to new music and its current season is a colourful whirl of exciting concerts that blend old and new repertoire, from a broad range of contemporary composers. One example is the recent premiere of Bryce Dessner’s Wires, an electric guitar concertante piece with the composer as soloist. Wires was paired with Sibelius’s First Symphony in a gloriously contrasting programme, followed by a late-night musical offering of pieces by Dessner, Kaija Saariaho, Berio and Meredith Monk under the orchestra’s innovative ‘Nightcap’ series.

“It’s critical for a high-profile orchestra to incorporate alternative kinds of music, concert formats and locations,” says Deborah Borda, the enterprising president and CEO of NY Phil.

The Nightcap series invites audiences to end their the evening, ‘with a drink and an intimate musical exchange in the glow of the skyline as seen from the Kaplan Penthouse.’ Just like a well-made Manhattan cocktail, this blended approach to curation is nicely rounded – with a kick.

Jaap van Zweden conducts New York Philharmonic in world premiere of Julia Wolfe's Fire in My Mouth © Chris Lee
Jaap van Zweden conducts New York Philharmonic in world premiere of Julia Wolfe’s Fire in My Mouth © Chris Lee

The cherry on top of the NY Phil’s commitment to contemporary music is Project 19 – a long-term initiative to commission and premiere 19 new works by 19 women composers, inspired by the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment that gave American women the right to vote. Project 19 is thought to be the largest women-only commissioning initiative in history.

“Project 19 is vital,” says Jaap van Zweden, NY Phil’s music director, with an emphasis on vital. “It’s time that women’s voices be increased in the area of composition and the celebration of the right to vote for women in the US is the ideal occasion.”

Project 19 officially launches in February 2020 when Van Zweden leads the NY Phil in three world premieres. First up is Nina C Young’s commission, which is performed on 5, 6, 8 and 11 February; Pulitzer Prize-nominated Tania León’s commission follows (13, 15, and 18 February), featuring with a special Nightcap event curated by León (15 February). The Project 19 commission by Ellen Reid – co-founder of Luna Composition Lab, a mentorship programme for young self-identified female, non-binary, and gender non-conforming composers – will then receive its premiere (20-22 February).

“I am excited about Project 19,” enthuses Borda. “It’s remarkable to think it was only one hundred years ago that women got the right to vote in America, and in looking at our own business, it was not until the mid-1960s that women could play in major American orchestras. We’ve made tremendous progress as we now also see women conductors on the podium, but one of the areas where you can statistically examine the discrepancy is in the number of pieces by women composers performed on the concert stage: last season less than 3% of the work performed [in the US] was by women composers.”

The other 16 commissioned composers are Unsuk Chin, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Joan La Barbara, Nicole Lizée, Caroline Mallonee, Jessie Montgomery, Angélica Negrón, Olga Neuwirth, Paola Prestini, Maria Schneider, Caroline Shaw, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Joan Tower, Melinda Wagner and Du Yun.