What’s in a season? You might think it’s simply a question of giving people what they want to hear, but a well-thought-through program can make the difference between titillating the one-off ticket buyer and inspiring an inquisitive audience to join you on an intriguing, even challenging journey.
There’s Daniil Trifonov, the 2019–20 Mary and James G. Wallach Artist-in-Residence. Plus a follow-up to last year’s successful experiment with staged opera—this time, Nina Stemme making her Philharmonic debut in an evening that couples Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle with Schoenberg’s harrowing psycho-drama Erwartung. Besides these, and more, there are three pillars to the season. Let’s call them past, present, and future.
The past first. Mahler’s New York, in April, will celebrate the Philharmonic’s tenth Music Director, Gustav Mahler, who held the post from 1909 until his premature death in 1911. For three years Mahler was a part-time resident and subway commuter. The final movement of his unfinished Tenth Symphony was famously inspired by the muffled drums of a funeral procession winding up Central Park West, past his apartment at the Majestic Hotel, a couple of stone’s throws from David Geffen Hall.
“The Philharmonic has had so many different and great music directors who all had very special relationships with Mahler,” explains Jaap van Zweden, the current Music Director. “I think the audience is probably waiting to find out what kind of relationship there is going to be between me, the Orchestra, and Mahler.”
In fact, Mahler is one of van Zweden’s calling cards. In this, his second Philharmonic season, he will conduct Mahler’s First and Second Symphonies and Songs of a Wayfarer, as well as take the Orchestra to Amsterdam for the Concertgebouw’s 2020 Mahler Festival, the first American orchestra to appear there in the Festival’s 100-year history. “It is always interesting to see how you can put your heart and soul in a Mahler Second, and at the same time honor the score. That is always a fine line,” the maestro says.
To celebrate the present, the hotspots festival focuses not just on the Philharmonic’s hometown, but also on two other hotbeds of innovation: Berlin and Reykjavík. The eclectic, contemporary three-week season finale includes World Premieres from Nico Muhly (representing the Icelandic capital that is home to the record label he co-founded) Olga Neuwirth (Berlin), and Sarah Kirkland Snider (New York). “Great, inventive composers and musicians thrive in those cities, and we want to showcase it,” says Philharmonic President and CEO Deborah Borda. “For while the Philharmonic is New York’s orchestra, we have to respect that we are also an international orchestra, and in this time of globalization you can be afraid of it or you can embrace it.”
And then there’s the future. In a farsighted bit of programming, Project 19 will honor the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which established American women’s right to vote) by commissioning 19 new works from women composers. “Right now, society is looking at the role of women, at gender issues, issues of equity and fairness,” says Borda. The music will be a particular focus of a three-week festival in February, anchored by premieres by Nina C. Young, Tania Léon, and Ellen Reid, as well as chamber works on the GRoW @ Annenberg Sound ON series and a special edition of Kravis Nightcap (see sidebar, left). The results of this ambitious commissioning project will also be heard later in the season, with the works by Neuwirth and Kirkland Snider during hotspots, and beyond, with music by Unsuk Chin, Caroline Shaw, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Joan Tower, and more to appear on future seasons. Borda continues: “Less than three percent of the music performed on the concert stage last season was by female composers. I am particularly proud that Jaap has selected some remarkable young women who are at the beginnings of their careers and others who are established giants of the composition world today. The hope is for a history-changing kind of project.”
When asked what classics he was looking forward to returning to other than Mahler, van Zweden pointed to the production of Bluebeard’s Castle and Erwartung, and also to Shostakovich. “I had a very intense Shostakovich Eight and then Seven with the Philharmonic,” he explains, “so I really look forward to continuing that relationship.” And he points to American icon Philip Glass, commissioned for the first time in the Philharmonic’s history. “I hope he feels this is a true recognition of him being who he is,” says van Zweden. “And it is an honor for us!”
Past, present, and future. Three equally important programming strands, but more than simply a happy coincidence, it’s about nailing colors to the mast. “I see our mission as a constantly evolving attempt to define an orchestra in the 21st century,” says Deborah Borda. “It’s about reinvention, and that is critical to us.”
Clive Paget is a freelance arts writer and critic, and editor-at-large for Australia’s Limelight Magazine. He was music-theater consultant at London’s National Theater, 2002–07, after spending ten years as a theater and opera director.