On a November evening, New York Philharmonic President and CEO Deborah Borda stood in the Women’s Voices exhibition in the New-York Historical Society. Surrounded by profiles of the likes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sonia Sotomayor, and Edith Wharton, Borda pointed to a watershed moment in women’s history while announcing its vibrant musical salute.
“Think about this tectonic shift in American culture: it was only 100 years ago that women were allowed the right to vote after the ratification of the 19th Amendment—and I must qualify that only white women were allowed to vote,” she said. She then introduced Project 19. Through this initiative, the single largest commissioning program ever undertaken to celebrate women, the New York Philharmonic is premiering works by 19 female composers over the course of several seasons. The performances begin this month.
“As one of the leading orchestras in America, it is the New York Philharmonic’s responsibility, and our joy, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of American women’s right to vote with this vast commissioning project,” said Music Director Jaap van Zweden.
With Project 19, the Philharmonic is giving a platform and agency to women’s voices, “catalyzing representation in our field and society at large,” Borda elaborated. The initiative launches with three consecutive weeks of programs, each conducted by van Zweden. The first program includes Tread softly by New York–based composer and sound artist Nina C. Young; the following week offers Stride by Cuban-American Tania León; the February focus ends with When the World as You’ve Known It Doesn’t Exist by 2019 Pulitzer Prize winner Ellen Reid. Beyond David Geffen Hall, The MarieJosée Kravis Creative Partner Nadia Sirota hosts and curates “Leading Voices,” a concert on the GRoW @ Annenberg Sound ON series that presents premieres of three chamber pieces: Ears of an Eagle; Eyes of a Hawk: In the Vortex by venerable performance artist Joan La Barbara; Tears / Pillow by Nicole Lizée, who draws inspiration from an eclectic mix of MTV, psychedelia, and the avant-garde; and Thrush Song (on Rachel Carson before Silent Spring) by artist and new-music impresario Paola Prestini. León is also curating a cabaret-style Kravis Nightcap event honoring Latin and jazz musicians who have influenced her work. (The Philharmonic will present two more orchestral premieres, by Olga Neuwirth and Sarah Kirkland Snider, in the spring.)
Project 19 composers range from those who broke through glass ceilings, like Grammy winner Joan Tower (an American first commissioned by the Philharmonic in 1994), to more recent friends, such as Iceland’s Anna Thorvaldsdottir (named the Orchestra’s Kravis Emerging Composer in 2012) and Jessie Montgomery (the musical activist who’d never been performed by the Philharmonic when the commission was extended). But all share an important quality: “Yes, they are women, but they are amazing composers,” said Borda.
Twelve of the 19 attended the New-York Historical Society launch event, and as the evening unfolded they shared notes, stories, and cell-phone numbers. Everyone expressed interest in attending each other’s premieres.
“Look what is happening, 19 women!” exclaimed León, who has held positions at the Dance Theatre of Harlem, City University of New York, and American Composers Orchestra, among others. “I know almost everybody. Joan Tower was the first composer who happened to be female who took me under her wing when I arrived in this country. And now Jessie [Montgomery] has written a piece that I will conduct at Dance Theatre of Harlem. It’s like passing the baton.”
Upon receiving the commission León dove into researching the history of the 19th Amendment and became fascinated by the life of pioneering suffragette Susan B. Anthony. “The word ‘stride’ applies to somebody who walks with a very firm step. If you read her statements you can hear her force, her conviction,” said León, who imbued her piece with a driving energy and dedicated it to Anthony along with “two visionaries: Deborah Borda and Jaap van Zweden.”
Reid feels that Project 19 “got a lot of things right. We’re not all on one concert celebrating women in music. Every composer is considered in a context outside of just gender. We’re framed as people, each with an equal voice.”
In fact, Reid’s piece is venturing away from the subject of the 19th Amendment. She welcomed the artistic freedom that accompanied the commission, and has written her work to explore her feelings on the state of the world: disembodiment, numbness, dizziness.
“This was a gift of being able to have a voice that matters,” Reid said. “And right now as a woman, just to express your voice felt like a political thing to do.”
Amanda Angel, a writer based in New York City, has written for Time Out New York, WQXR.org, New York Classical Review, Glamour, O Magazine, ESPN The Magazine, and other publications.