In 1993, composer and violinist Mark O’Connor wrote “The Fiddle Concerto.” O’Connor, an award-winning fiddle, mandolin, and guitar virtuoso, successfully integrated country fiddling into a symphonic work that, with the help of Warner Bros. Records and classical radio stations hungry for new American sounds, became a crossover hit. Michael Torke, whose early musical explorations by his own admission had never included country or bluegrass, has written a concerto in the same idiom, “Sky.” It’s the featured work on a new album on Albany Records that also includes concertos for oboe, bassoon, and clarinet.
By chance, Torke’s album is being released at the same time as Ken Burns’ new multi-part documentary, “Country Music,” which chronicles nearly 100 years of music history. The series’ first episode explains how country music was born out of the mixing of African, Hispanic, Irish, Scotch, and Eastern European sounds. Torke may not have grown up immersed in country and bluegrass, but maybe like the saying goes, “he got there as fast as he could,” and if it took five decades, well then that’s okay, too! "Sky" is no doubt inspired by its soloist Tessa Lark’s Kentucky roots. The concerto (you can listen to it here) wears its bluegrass and Irish reel motifs on its sleeve and sounds like it descended from the mountains only to run into Aaron Copland outside the concert hall. Torke titled the work “Sky” based on its wide-open sound, another characteristic shared with some of Copland’s best-known work like “Appalachian Spring.” Surprising orchestral punches reminiscent of “Rodeo” appear in “Sky” as well as on “West,” a concerto for bassoon that’s the second work on the disc. There’s also a lovely clarinet work, “East,” that closes out the album.
But I was gobsmacked by the lyrical gifts Torke brings to “South,” a concerto for oboe featuring soloist Ryan Roberts. I am not generally prone to hyperbole, and while a sensitive person, I rarely react emotionally to music upon first listen. But reader, I tell you that as I drove around one late-summer afternoon, I may have actually teared up a little while listening to the first two movements of "South." The melodies flow beautifully in this brief (only eleven minutes long) work, with the oboe delicately backed by the sounds of harp and wistful orchestral smiles that finally burst into joy.
Torke is a synesthete who sees color in music. I’ve enjoyed noticing the association between color and music in past works by him such as “Bright Blue Music,” and “Orange.” For the first time while listening to this music, I felt it, too. This is some of Torke’s best work, and once again, I’d renew my call for any orchestra to program one of the four concertos on this disc as a perfect example of modern music that exemplifies pure joy. They’re sure to be real crowd pleasers.