Joan Tower, composer, pianist and educator, is evidently no philosopher. The subject of a Composer Portrait at the Miller Theater in 2011, she was given another showcase at the Miller on Thursday evening, with excellent performances of her “Big Sky” (2000) for piano trio, “In Memory” (2002) for string orchestra and “White Water” (2011), her String Quartet No. 5.
But this time, under the banner of the Miller’s artist-curated series Bach, Revisited, she had to share the stage with Bach: grudgingly, it seemed. Her works were interspersed with movements of his “Brandenburg” Concerto No. 5. No particular connections were evident, and Paul Griffiths, in his concise, spirited program note, found none to suggest, other than that the Tower trio was followed by Bach’s second movement, also a trio.
So in an intermission discussion onstage, Melissa Smey, the director of the Miller Theater, asked the obvious: What was the connection between Ms. Tower’s music and Bach’s?
“I am everything that Bach is not,” Ms. Tower replied. “Or the other way around: he is everything that I’m not. He does everything well: pitch, counterpoint, rhythm. I do everything else.”
The topic quickly shifted to Ms. Tower’s favorite causes, good ones to be sure: the fostering of living composers and the training of performers to play new music. But in closing, Ms. Smey asked Ms. Tower if he she had anything to add about Bach. “He died, didn’t he?” Ms. Tower said.
Something seemed to be lacking from the spirit of the occasion. But the performances were all very good. The Dover Quartet, a group in residence at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, gave an excellent, taut reading of “White Water,” riding its waves closely, and the Curtis 20/21 Ensemble handled the rest of the program beautifully.
As its name implies, the student ensemble, directed by David Ludwig, specializes in contemporary music, so its mastery of Ms. Tower’s relatively conservative idiom was no surprise. But it also gave the Bach concerto a stylish performance with sparing use of vibrato.
Eunice Kim, the solo or lead violinist in everything but the quartet, was superb throughout. Her fine partners in the Bach included Patrick Williams, flutist, and Bryan Anderson, harpsichordist.