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CD Review: Michael Torke – An Italian Straw Hat

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Ok, I just have to get this out of the way immediately, speaking of the worst record covers of all time, what the hell were they thinking here? I mean, I know it’s a photo representing the actual ballet, but did it have to be THAT photo? Anyway, Michael Torke came on the scene in the early 1990s as a relative youngster with some really appealing “post-Minimalist” stuff blending neo-Classical harmony, driving pop-ish rhythms, and vibrant orchestrations all with a dry acidic edge to it, best represented by his “color music” for orchestra in the great (dare I say “classic”?) recording by David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony.

Then there was the big choral/orchestral work Book Of Proverbs where everything sounded lush and gorgeous but the restless edginess had almost disappeared. This trend continues with An Italian Straw Hat, a recent ballet score. While it grabs you right from the start sounding like the opening of Act IV from Stravinsky’s Petrushka played backwards and upside down, things mellow out after that and you realize you’ll be awash in a sea of ear candy for the next hour or so.

But hey, who doesn’t love candy? Yes, you’ll be hearing what sounds a lot like a grab bag of cliches borrowed from Mozart, Rossini, Poulenc, Hollywood film scores, Broadway musicals, and Torke himself… but just give in and enjoy it. True, the “I demand more intellectual stimulation” music snob in you will be tempted to cringe in horror and outrage at the obvious brassy climaxes, but just relax.

Hey, it takes a lot of talent to write music that normal people might actually enjoy listening to — and that’s I guess what wins me over: this is not some kind of wink-wink post-modern referencial spin on traditional tonal music going on here, it’s apparently just Michael Torke writing stuff that he likes and probably hopes other people will like too. This certainly inspires lots of dismissive criticism from those in the “serious music” world who assume that if something sounds pleasant it must be inferior tripe. But you know what? If you can write appealing orchestral music with skill and flair, you deserve credit for it whether you’re Michael Torke, John Williams, or George Gershwin.

So in summary, I recommended this (despite the cover) because:

  • It’s enjoyable, tonal, happy music and that’s ok — in fact it’s great to listen to while dusting or doing other household chores (and that’s ok too, just ask Satie.)
  • Torke is a Milwaukee boy.
  • This is a great “blindfold test” CD — ask people when this was written and I bet you won’t get any answers later than 1930.
  • Michael Torke (like Daniel Lenz, Philip Glass, John Eliot Gardiner, and the London Symphony Orchestra) has formed his own record label (Ecstatic Music) to avoid dealing with “major label” music business nonsense.
  • It’s better than that other recent Torke CD on Naxos (Rapture).
[from serenade in green]

Published:CMP

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