Michael Torke: Three Manhattan Bridges
Albany Records

Michael Torke's Color Music (1985–89), a vibrant and exuberant suite of colour-themed orchestral settings (that its opening part is titled “Ecstatic Orange” is totally apt, given the work's charged energy level), brought the American composer international recognition when it was released on the British label Argo in 1991, one year after a collection including The Yellow Pages and Adjustable Wrench introduced his work to the listening public. Other Argo-based releases followed, among them Music On the Floor (1994) and Overnight Mail (1997), until he established his own label, Ecstatic Records, in 2003 to issue new recordings and re-issue six from the ‘90s that originally appeared on the now-defunct Argo.

He's sometimes described as a post-minimalist composer, but the term is not only vague but hardly captures the essence of his style. A typical Torke setting is abundant in melody and rhythmically robust, and consequently more accessible than the classical norm; while there are contrasts of mood in a given work, Torke's no morose tragedian, and someone attending an evening-length presentation of his works will likely leave the concert hall buoyed by the music's uplifting tone. There's seemingly no genre Torke hasn't tackled, be it opera (Pop-pea, produced by Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris in 2012), ballet (The Contract and An Italian Straw Hat for the National Ballet of Canada), oratorio (Four Seasons, commissioned by the Walt Disney Company), or concerto (Concerto for Orchestra, recorded by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in 2014).

An excellent sampling of Torke's sound is provided by these world premiere recordings of two works performed by The Albany Symphony and conducted by David Alan Miller, the first a concerto for piano and orchestra titled Three Manhattan Bridges and the second a concerto for cello and orchestra called Winter's Tale, which, as one would expect, draws for inspiration from Shakespeare's play. The pairing of Torke and a Manhattan Bridge, whether it be the George Washington, Queensboro, or Brooklyn (as is the case here), proves to be a natural fit, given the kind of solid structural form Torke works so methodically into his compositions; plus there's, at least ideally, an elegance to a bridge's design that's also very much a part of Torke's music. And just as a bridge builds connections between physically distinct areas, he regards his music as a means by which to connect directly with an audience.

Teeming with expressive melodic statements, the first of the three movements, “George Washington Bridge,” captures the majesty of the structure while also reflecting the high level of traffic activity one might witness on the bridge. Gentler and even nostalgic by comparison, the central movement, “Queensboro Bridge,” paints a romantic portrait, suggesting in its delicate combination of piano and woodwinds the experience a visitor to the city might have in gazing upon its magnificent skyline at night. “Brooklyn” caps the work with a spirited, somewhat jazz-inflected movement that's got Torke's rhythmic feel written all over it. Pianist Joyce Yang brings the material to life with a fully committed performance in a work that, consistent with the piano concerto tradition, provides ample solo opportunities and complements the soloist's playing with rich orchestral colour. Don't be surprised if Three Manhattan Bridges reminds you at certain moments of Rachmaninoff and Gershwin, though that's hardly a knock against it.

With each of its five movements built upon a palindromic fast-medium-slow-medium-fast scheme, a specific structural design also is present in Winter's Tale, though the listener's attention is more likely to be absorbed by the singing tone of Julie Albers' cello than focus on issues of musical construction. Like Yang, Albers elevates the material with her sensitive engagement, whether it be the delicate, heartfelt “Largo” or the energized “Allegro.” Interestingly, it's this second work that feels the more authentically Torke-like of the two, perhaps because Three Manhattan Bridges hews a little more closely to the traditions of the piano concerto, whereas the cello concerto exudes free-flowing melodic and rhythmic qualities fully emblematic of Torke's style. Differences between the two works aside, the release offers a fine representative portrait of the composer that's sure to satisfy long-time admirers as well as those coming to him for the first time.

December 2016