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CD Review

Michael Torke

  • An American Abroad
  • Jasper
  • Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra "Rapture"
Colin Currie, percussion
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Marin Alsop
Naxos 8.559167 DDD 61:20
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Several releases on the short-lived Argo label were devoted to American composer Michael Torke, who was born in 1961. I've followed Torke's career with some interest, as he was studying at the Eastman School of Music at just about the same time that I was studying at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry up the street. In the 1980s and 1990s, Torke's music was a synthesis of aggressive neo-classicism and minimalist influences, firmly rooted in tonality. His work was brilliant and nervous, aflame with color and jagged shapes.

The three works on Naxos' new CD were composed between 1998 and 2001. It is interesting to hear how Torke has changed and how he has stayed the same since his last Argo CD. The most surprising work is the first: An American Abroad. In the words of the composer, "We hear the natural naïvety an American might feel traveling abroad, full of wonderment and curiosity." (Shades of An American in Paris ?) There's certainly a wide-eyed innocence to this work – not a characteristic I've previously heard in Torke's music. At the same time, Torke's youthfully restive writing has been replaced by an almost middle-aged smoothness, even down to the "Big Tune" that makes several appearances in this work. An American Abroad seems destined for the same popular acceptance enjoyed by John Adams's The Chairman Dances. I never would have predicted this ten years ago!

Jasper, we are told, "was inspired by the surroundings of a house overlooking Lake Superior, where the piece was written." Fanfare-like material alternates with graceful melodies that soar upwards as if caught by the wind. More than a decade ago, Torke wrote a series of orchestral works inspired by colors. The ebullient mood of those works has been recaptured here, with a surprising overlay of Americana. It's as if Torke were channeling Copland.

The Percussion Concerto, to which Torke has given the name Rapture, is inspired by the writings of William Butler Yeats. The composer was searching for a "ritualistic" effect in this concerto; to unite "the religious with the sexual" was "the kind of transcendence that I am interested in discovering in Rapture," Torke writes. The outer movements of this concerto are most similar to his older work. If anything, the opening movement ("Drums and Woods") is overly insistent, and runs the risk of fatiguing not only the percussionist (the indefatigable Colin Currie) but the listener as well. The Eastern-sounding middle movement ("Mallets") makes use of a pretty and hypnotically insistent pattern. "Metals" brings the work to a rousing conclusion; again, I feel that Torke runs the risk of giving the audience too much of a good thing here.

The performances are everything anyone could want, and the engineering keeps Torke's many strands untangled. Another release in Naxos' award-winning "American Classics" series, this CD of music by Michael Torke shows that he has developed into a composer who can please many without pandering.

Copyright © 2003, Raymond Tuttle