TORKE Orchestral, Chamber, and Vocal Works, from 1984–1996
While this set may not be as inclusive or historically essential as “complete” boxes of Stravinsky or John Adams, it is nevertheless significant. Michael Torke, now in his mid-forties, burst onto the new-music scene in the 1980s with what seemed to be a fully integrated compositional voice, drawing its tone from the Minimalists, rock, the orchestral palette of Ravel, neo-Classical Stravinsky, and more, all presented in primary colors and imbued with the brashness of youth. Choreographers immediately snatched him up, and you can hear why: this is music of sheer physical joy. It makes you want to dance, or at least leap in the air from time to time.
Torke was then the contemporary-music Wunderkind discovery; they succeed each other very quickly. Some, like Adams, go on to bigger and deeper things. Judging from his recent ballet score, An Italian Straw Hat (c. 2004, not included in this set), Torke has not expanded his range in the same way. The new ballet seems too eager to please (and definitely achieves that aim), whereas Torke’s early works were eager to impress: a subtle but very real distinction.
In some ways, also, his early work has dated, for this is sound of an era of confidence and optimism, predating the war on terror and the uncertainties of climate change. Compare Torke’s joie de vivre to the harsh realities in Michael Hersch’s symphonies—one of today’s young lions—and the contrast will strike you at once. Fortunately for Torke and others, the late 1980s was a time when big record companies took risks, flush with funds as collectors switched from vinyl to digital. Everything in this collection appeared on the resuscitated Argo label; the set is now reissued on the composer’s own label and is available through his Web site. The list of distinguished names in the headnote tells the rest of the story.
Among the most exciting performances are the orchestral pieces named for various colors (Ecstatic Orange, Bright Blue Music), given exuberant treatment by Zinman and the Baltimore SO. The earliest Argo release consisted of short works for chamber orchestra: Adjustable Wrench, featuring a great bass guitar riff, Vanada, etc. These also remain irresistible, and are sprinkled throughout the six discs. The original Yellow Pages (played by the London Sinfonietta under David Alan Miller) is absent, superseded by a 1997 recording from the band Present Music, as part of the complete Telephone Book. Present Music’s performance is lighter on its feet, equally accomplished but not so funky.
Other highlights include the Nyman-like Saxophone Concerto for John Harle, Four Proverbs with Catherine Bott, and the choral Book of Proverbs with its clear echoes of Stravinsky (cf. the Symphony of Psalms and the choral movements of the Cantata on Olde English Texts). Javelin, written for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, is sharply evocative of the exhilaration of elite sport, and far more attuned to the Olympic spirit than the mawkish anthems we have been served up since.
This set earns its place in the Hall of Fame not merely because it inhabits the Zeitgeist of a particular time and place, but also through its sheer enjoyment factor. Maybe Torke is too bright and brazen to dip into on a daily basis, but if you’re after a musical high with no aftertaste of angst, you should own these discs. This composer was young, upfront, ambitious, gifted, and celebrated. Who wouldn’t want to share some of that?