The Philharmonic’s Women Can Wear Pants in the Park

Posted June 14, 2018 7:06 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — The New York Philharmonic, the only major American orchestra that doesn’t permit its female players to wear pants for formal evening performances, makes an exception for the popular concerts in the city’s parks. So it appeared that many of the women had jettisoned their usual skirts Wednesday, when the Philharmonic came to the Great Lawn at Central Park on this year’s tour.

And it was a lovely evening. Though the forecast had been iffy, the weather was clear and breezy. The parks conservancy estimated the crowd at 28,000. The dynamic conductor James Gaffigan, whose international career is rising, led an appealing program of works by Saint-Saens, Bernstein and Rimsky-Korsakov — all standards of parks concerts.

This time, however, the proceedings included results from an educational venture, and a wonderful surprise. Two, actually. Gaffigan conducted short new pieces, three minutes each, by a pair of participants in the Philharmonic’s Very Young Composers initiative. How young? Well, Jordan Millar, a student at Poly Prep Country Day School in Brooklyn, and Camrym Cowan, a student at P.S. 11 in Brooklyn, are both 11.

Through this educational initiative, which has been going on for more than 20 years, the Philharmonic invites students enthusiastic about music to compose and orchestrate their own pieces, working with designated teaching artists. Selected scores are played at David Geffen Hall as part of the Philharmonic’s Young People’s Concerts. But it was a big step for Millar and Cowan to have their pieces performed before thousands in Central Park.

You might have expected them to be rattled by the pressure. Not so. During a brief joint interview onstage with Deborah Borda, the Philharmonic’s president and chief executive officer, the aspiring composers sounded poised and assured. (It should be noted: Borda was wearing jeans.) When asked what the audience should listen for in their pieces, they each had specific answers.

The theme of this year’s Very Young Composers initiative was the Harlem Renaissance. Millar and Cowan described taking trips to Harlem to look for inspiration. Millar said that in “Boogie Down Uptown” she evokes Broadway sounds and light swing, as well as the paintings of Aaron Douglas that depict shadowy figures dancing. Eliciting these various elements in the piece “gives it depth,” Millar said confidently.

Indeed, the music has layered elements, starting with a theme in unison that splits into parallel intervals, then leads to episodes with brassy flourishes and bluesy turns over urgent rhythmic riffs.

Cowan said that in her piece, “Harlem Shake,” the audience should listen for a passage of saxophone improvisation and catch the way the melody repeats. Both elements came across vividly in music that bustles with sliding brass, sputtering rhythms and an episode of instrumental interplay. At the end, the audience stood and cheered both composers.

Gaffigan began earlier with a crisp, dark account of the Bacchanale from Saint-Saens’s “Samson et Dalila,” then led a feisty performance of Bernstein’s Three Dance Episodes from “On the Town.” After intermission he drew colorful, rhapsodic playing from the orchestra in Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” The evening ended with fireworks, a ritual that audiences for these parks concerts count on.

Event Information:

The New York Philharmonic parks concerts continue at Prospect Park in Brooklyn on Friday, and conclude with an indoor concert in Staten Island on Sunday; 212-875-5709, nyphil.org.