Joan Tower © FT

Joan Tower is one of a kind – an independent thinker, a dazzling craftsperson and a composer who steadfastly refuses to toe popular party lines. Her specialities would seem to involve melodic compression, rhythmic vitality, expressive economy and technical intricacy. An evening of her music, especially her recent music, makes gratifying if stringent demands on performers and, yes, on listeners too.

And so it was on Thursday at Symphony Space, a concert hall at 95th Street and Broadway that specialises in unconventional programming within an intimate, informal, mildly disorganised ambience. The occasion, part of the New York Chamber Music Festival, was Tower’s 74th birthday. Chipper and generous, she offered a few self-effacing words at the outset and led the applause, with good reason, after each of the eight complex items on the agenda. Everyone played brilliantly, displaying obvious pride and inspiration, not to mention affection for the honoured protagonist.

The festivities began with Steps (2011), a brief, exhausting piano étude that neatly juggles impressionist textures with dodecaphonic procedures. This gave way to Throbbing Still (2000), a clever combination of Stravinskian adventure and Inca formula (Tower spent her youth in Bolivia). Blair McMillen served as steel-fingered soloist. String Force (2010) gave the splendid violinist Emma Steele seven minutes to explore vast shades of dynamic passion. The meticulously calculated frenzy of Rising (2009) showcased the virtuosic flute of Carol Wincenc, neatly seconded by the Escher String Quartet.

Clocks (1985), a tick-tocking mini-extravaganza for amplified guitar, dared to toy simultaneously with flamenco patterns and Baroque impulses. Colin Davin somehow made it sound easy. Wincenc soared and fluttered nonchalantly through the mad coloratura of the Flute Concerto (1989), sensitively partnered by the pianist Hsin-Chiao Liao. Wild Purple (1998) allowed the violist Dov Scheindlin to expand customary concepts of molto agitato. Finally, as a whimsical pièce de résistance, the Da Capo Chamber Players breezed their enlightened way through Petroushskates (1980), Tower’s classic juxtaposition of Shrovetide hustle and winter-sport bustle.

It was bracing. It was lovely.

www.symphonyspace.org

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