Poor Michael Torke has a hard time being taken seriously, largely because he writes uniformly optimistic, pop-tinged, lively, soul-easing music. But then Gershwin had the same problem in his era. Torke's time will come, I strongly suspect. And this release will help.
Someone has called him 'the American Ravel'. That's over-reaching a bit, but I can see their point. Torke is a master orchestrator (possibly the best currently working in America, although John Adams is right up there with him), and there is an insouciance that we generally associate with 20th-century French composers. He can write a meltingly beautiful tune, and he is a master of complex recognizably _American_ rhythms, some of them Latin American. He has been fortunate to have had wonderful recordings of his music; I'm thinking now of that string of Argo releases featuring David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony.
For several years Torke was composer-in-residence for the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and all three pieces on this CD were written for them. The title of the first, 'An American Abroad', reminds us of Gershwin's 'An American in Paris', but that's about the only similarity - and there are no taxi horns in the score! The predominant feeling in this 21 minute piece is that of an American, fresh-faced, curious, naïve, full of wonder wandering from place to place in a journey abroad. There are some invigorating rhythms (always a feature of Torke's music) and a middle section, rather more reflective, that has one of Torke's patented tunes, the kind that get in your head and won't leave you alone. There is a touch of melancholy in this section; it made me think of the sadness of leaving wonderful travels behind when it's time to go home. But then there is the excitement of going back to familiar places and people. Hmmm, I've just described a 21st Century tone-poem, haven't I? Liszt and Richard Strauss would be proud.
The shorter second piece, 'Jasper', is a set of informal variations on a simple tune, one that uses each of the notes of the diatonic scale only once. The tune gets dressed up in varying rhythms and instrumentation, but retains its recognizability.
The final piece, the longest on the disc at 28 minutes, is a percussion concerto, entitled 'Rapture', written for and performed by the brilliant young (very young: he's only 26, and was only 23 when he premièred it) Colin Currie. A percussionist friend tells me that 'he beats Evelyn Glennie all hollow'; I'm not prepared to say that, but he certainly is hugely talented. I only wish I could _see_ him performing the piece. The concerto has an unusual form in that each of the three movements features a different subset of the percussion family. The first is subtitle 'Drums and Woods', the second 'Mallets', and the last 'Metals'. You get the idea. Needless to say, Torke's rhythmic vitality and ingenuity get a real workout here. The insistent rhythm in the first movement leads eventually to a kind of hypnotic state in the listener, the 'Rapture' of the title. This, in itself, is not my own cup of tea, but I did get caught up in the jittery excitement of it all. The second movement, the one with mallet instruments, is less frenetic and more intrinsically melodic, lots of deep marimba, lots of chords of the ninth. I will admit that it was my favorite; I guess I'd been a bit worn out by the first movement. But we're off to the races again, this time with a salsa beat, in movement three and the whole thing ends up in a flurry almost unbelievable virtuosity on the part of Currie. Hoo boy!
One personal note: whenever I am really down and am having real trouble remembering that this is a wonderful world, I often put on something of Torke's - my long-time favorite has been 'Javelin', which he wrote on commission for the Atlanta Olympic Games (and which they inexplicably did not use!) - and my spirits come bubbling up; it is simply impossible for me to stay down with this music in the air.