MICHAEL TORKE: Concerto for Orchestra – Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orch./Vasily Petrenko; Oracle – Quad City Sym. Orch./Mark Russell Smith; Bliss – U. of Kansas Wind Ens./Paul W. Popiel; Iphigenia – Camerata NY/Richard Owen – Ecstatic ER092261, 63:42 [Distr. by Naxos] (11/13/15) ***:

Four fairly large-scale and energetic works from this American original.

I have always enjoyed Michael Torke’s music going back to his series of ‘color’ pieces (such as the best known, Ecstatic Orange) from the mid-1980s or so. For the uninitiated, I highly recommend a recording of the whole dance-intended series of these works with David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony. His music is regularly very direct, uncomplicated and upbeat, with a style that draws upon minimalism and jazz but is wholly his own.

A lot of composers seem to want to write a Concerto for Orchestra for the implicit chance to showcase each section of the orchestra and in a form with which many are familiar. So, among the many versions of this form out there, Torke’s is a very worthwhile addition. The whole piece revolves around a four-note motive first proclaimed in the opening trumpet fanfare and bounced all over the orchestra in various guises throughout the work. This work, in seven connected movements, is not really a ‘theme and variations’ treatment such as in Bartok, but the germ motive does act like the foundation to the whole. I found this work very entertaining and well structured.

Oracle is a very short (five minutes) work that seems intended as fanfare-like work to open a concert. Here too there is a small motive that acts as the impetus for the piece. This is an interesting little work but there are other works of this type that – for the duration – seem a bit more attention getting.

Bliss is a wind ensemble work that really depends a lot on a clapping rhythm for the “motive” (similar to what we often hear in flamenco music). Out of the clapping, to establish mood and pace, a melody emerges and gets developed throughout the ensemble. The clapping seems to permeate and lasts a little long for my tastes but this is another characteristically buoyant work that holds the interest well throughout. I enjoy discovering new works for wind ensemble as more composers discover that a string-less ‘band’ can produce a very wide and interesting array of timbres and moods. This is, overall, a very fine addition.

Iphigenia is kind of the ‘oddity’ here. Scored for but six winds and two strings, this work was written for a staging (it seems, according to the composer’s booklet notes) of the Euripides Iphigenia in Aulis legend. The work is written in seven connected scenes reflecting key plot points in the tale. The section “Agamemnon and his Warriors” has some nice and expected tension to it and I felt that some of the sections, such as “Clytemnestra and Agamemnon” displays a nice emotional feel. This is really a very nice work that conveys the tone of the mythology well but is wholly engaging even without that context.

I have listened to Michael’s music for over thirty years and always liked the “happy” and propulsive nature to it. I think the two strongest works in this collection are the Concerto for Orchestra and Iphigenia. All four diverse performing ensembles here do a very fine job and the recording standards from Ecstatic (Torke’s own label) are up to their usual high standards. I recommend this to anyone for some fun listening but especially to fans of Michael Torke, to add to their collection.

—Daniel Coombs