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The KPAC Blog features classical music news, reviews, and analysis from South Texas and around the world.

Monumental Structures Inspire Romantic Music

In 1996, I was listening to “Performance Today” on KPAC and heard the host, Martin Goldsmith, introduce a piece of music by a composer new to me. It was “The Yellow Pages,” by Michael Torke. Besides Torke’s affinity for music associated with colors (he is a synesthete), Goldsmith described the subtle variations in the short work as something akin to flipping through the pages of the phone book. I loved it, and have been following Torke’s career since, as the composer has developed from writing a kind of “post-minimalist” music into composing lush ballet music (“The Italian Straw Hat”) and bright fanfares like “Javelin,” written for the 1996 Summer Olympics.

It’s that latter work that the composer cites as a cousin to “Three Manhattan Bridges,” a new piano concerto that’s paired with “Winter’s Tale” for cello and orchestra, on a new album featuring the Albany Symphony Orchestra. In “Three Manhattan Bridges,” the structure is not strictly fast-slow-fast, and each of the movements of the work is named after a bridge that connects Manhattan with the mainland. Opening the piece is “George Washington Bridge,” far removed from William Schuman’s bold, brassy rendering of the steel structure. Torke plays with jazzy chords and descending melodic lines. Throughout the concerto, including “Queensboro Bridge” and “Brooklyn Bridge,” Joyce Yang plays like Rachmaninoff at the Ramada, and I’m not putting down either by saying so. This is not a flashy piece. Instead, the soloist and orchestra work together to create a romantic musical portrait of these monumental structures that would be a fitting alternate soundtrack to that scene in “Manhattan” with Woody Allen and Diane Keaton at the foot of the Queensboro Bridge—and I love Gershwin. The concerto wraps with a bit of uplift that takes flight in much the same way as “Javelin.”

On the same disc, Julie Albers plays Torke’s “Winter’s Tale,” with the Albany Symphony, a piece not entirely inspired by Shakespeare, as Torke notes in the CD booklet. It’s also not an especially frosty-sounding work, either. There are no biting, stabbing lines like Vivaldi’s famous “Winter” concerto. Instead, this “Winter’s Tale,” with its mostly moderate tempo throughout, is distinctly sweater weather. Albers lovingly caresses the solo line.

Of all Torke’s works, I still prefer the swoon-worthy “Straw Hat” and “Tahiti,” but these are wonderful musical travelogues. Torke writes orchestral music infused with the natural joy of jazz and pop, without sounding quite like either. He’s probably our most instantly accessible modern American composer, and any orchestra looking to expand its audience’s tastes ought to consider Torke. You can’t help but smile when you listen, and when you’re leaving the concert hall, that’s a good feeling to have.

Credit Sorens / Wikimedia commons
Wikimedia commons
George Washington Bridge at night.