The Propulsive Post-Minimalism of Michael Torke

Monday, August 06, 2012

A decade or two before post-minimalism became the lingua franca of emerging American composers, the young Michael Torke was already building his career on it. More than one composer has identified the "post-minimalist" pantheon as going beyond Adams, Glass, Nyman, Reich, Riley, Torke – and not necessarily in that order.

Nico Muhly, for one, is quick to single out Torke's riffs on Reich and Adams as a primary influence on his own brightly-colored, easygoing oeuvre. Torke's Four Proverbs (1993) and Book of Proverbs (1996) on Biblical texts, take the process-driven text setting of pieces like Reich's Tehillim and turn it into a chopped salad of syllables.

Torke's stock soared in the 1990s, with a string of high-profile orchestral works under his belt, including his Color Music (Rust, Slate, etc.), named for the somewhat synaesthetic composer's visual impressions of each, and the vigorous Javelin, commissioned for the Atlanta Symphony's anniversary. Even higher-profile commissions followed, including the massive, Disney-sponsored millennial oratorio Four Seasons (1999) for the New York Philharmonic, and the short opera Strawberry Fields (1999), for the Glimmerglass and New York City Operas.

Perhaps because of its brevity, Strawberry Fields is a shockingly forgotten work. In playwright A.R. Gurney's libretto, a student skipping class and an amiably senile Verdi aficionado accidentally meet at Central Park's titular John Lennon memorial; the piece is at once an elegy for opera and a celebration of music's power to create a sense of community. The jaunty, angular text-setting of Torke's comic scenes gives way to a climactic ensemble of surprising emotional power; at one of Glimmerglass Opera's premiere performances, the silence that should have followed the death of the old woman was instead filled with the sniffling of a weeping audience.

An opera about opera, Strawberry Fields is not a frivolously self-referential score, but a deeply felt one. The composer must feel a deep sympathy with the two composers whose ghosts haunt the work: Lennon and Verdi, two musicians who achieved a vast popular following in their lifetimes, but whose ambitions also reached the level of high art. Torke, likewise, does all he can to reach out to a great mass of listeners, while still insisting on music's power to elevate them.

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