Musical Humidity: Michael Torke’s “Tahiti”

American composer Michael Torke (b. 1961)
American composer Michael Torke (b. 1961)

 

When you listen to the music of the most time-tested, enduring composers, it’s easy to get a sense of effortless perfection, as if the music couldn’t be any other way. It’s impossible to know if Michael Torke, or any other living composer, will one day fall into the “enduring” category. But I often sense this quality in Torke’s music. It speaks with sublime honesty. A strange combination of elements emerge in many of Torke’s pieces: glossy, “even-better-than-the-real-thing” references to the past alongside hints of pop music and endearingly naive melodies.

We hear many of these elements in Tahiti, an eight-movement work written in 2009 and recorded by conductor Clark Rundell and Ensemble 10/10, the contemporary music ensemble of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. According to Torke, Tahiti‘s descriptive movement titles are not intended to paint an image, but to suggest “the idea of humidity: they attempt to capture the perfume of leisure time in a very warm and sunny, beautiful place. In the program notes at Torke’s website, he also quotes this passage from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick:

For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!

Here is the seventh moment of Tahiti, Huahine: under the moonlight. At moments (like the woodwind-mallot voice at 0:34), the music seems reminiscent of Torke’s 2002 tone poem, An American Abroad. Part of the recording’s unique flavor is the result of decisions made in the recording studio. Torke wanted it to have the glossy, atmospheric sheen of a late 1960s-early ’70s Burt Bacharach track:

  • Find this recording at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Explore more of Michael Torke’s music in the Listeners’ Club archive.

Remembering Walter Weller

conductor Walter Weller (1939-2015)
conductor Walter Weller (1939-2015)

 

Austrian conductor and violinist Walter Weller passed away last Sunday at the age of 75. Weller was one of the last links to a Viennese musical tradition rooted in the nineteenth century.

Following in his father’s footsteps, Walter Weller joined the Vienna Philharmonic at the age of 17, eventually becoming one of its concertmasters. In addition, he performed as first violinist of the Weller Quartet. In 1966 he was asked to fill in on short notice for the conductor Karl Böhm. This launched a conducting career that included regular appearances at Vienna State Opera and Volksoper and principal conductor posts with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and the Scottish National Orchestra. In an article in Glasgow’s Herald Scotland, music critic Michael Tumelty said that Weller

had a seminal influence on the sound of [the RSNO] that extends to this day. He brought a depth and richness of sound that nobody else ever has.

Conductor Kenneth Woods offered this description in 2007.

Walter Weller leaves behind an extensive discography, ranging from music of Martinu and Suk to the complete symphonies of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Prokofiev. Here is his 2004 recording of Mendelssohn’s overture, The Hebrides, Op. 26, “Fingal’s Cave” with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Throughout the overture, we hear the windswept mystery of the remote Scottish islands Mendelssohn visited around 1829…the play of light and shadow on the water and the rugged cliffs surround Fingal’s Cave. This sense of mystery remains unresolved in the final chords. Weller’s performance comes to life with fiery excitement and also with incredibly soft moments of introspection:

Here is Walter Weller’s 2006 recording with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra of Beethoven’s overture, The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43. The overture opened Beethoven’s 1801 ballet score.

Here is the final movement from Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony No. 1 from a 1975 recording with the London Symphony Orchestra. It’s hard to imagine a more exciting performance. Listen carefully to the little interjections throughout this joyful whirlwind of a movement:

Holly Mulcahy: A Concertmaster for the 21st Century

from HollyMulcahy.com, Photo by Bo Huang
from HollyMulcahy.com, Photo by Bo Huang

 

This week a gloomy story came out in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette following a $100,000 audience development study conducted by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Taken at face value, the study seems to have uncovered some troubling community perceptions. Despite having one of the world’s greatest orchestras in their backyard, the focus group of non-ticket buyers perceived PSO concerts as “boring” and “stuffy.” At least one commentator is pointing out the study’s limitations and attempting to delve deeper into the data.

Regardless, the idea that orchestras must fundamentally change in order to attract new audiences has become a cliche. In some cases, orchestras have resorted to common sense-defying gimmicks in the name of “innovation.” It’s important to acknowledge that classical music exists on a different plane from mass media culture. A similar focus group might find Shakespeare “boring,” but in the long arc of time, Shakespeare endures as pop culture fades. There will always be an audience for great music.

For audience development and community engagement built on passion and sincerity, look no further than Holly Mulcahy, concertmaster of the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera. Read Holly’s blog, Neo Classical  and you begin to get a sense of the power of personal connections. Last week, Holly generated excitement with her performance of Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto with the Chattanooga Symphony. The concert seems to have attracted both young and old audience members. In anticipation of the performance, which was attended by the composer, a local bartender developed a special “Higdon cocktail.” It’s not every day that a contemporary piece is met with so much excitement. If Holly Mulcahy’s success can be taken as a model, personal interaction and passion for the community are essential ingredients for twenty-first century audience development.

Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto

Jennifer Higdon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Violin Concerto was written in 2008 and premiered by Hilary Hahn. The first movement is named 1726, the address of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia (1726 Locust Street). Higdon is on the faculty of Curtis. In the first movement, I hear echoes of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto (1:49-2:00).

Here is Hilary Hahn’s 2010 recording with Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko:

Here is the second movement, Chaconni. The barn-burning third movement, Fly Forward  was inspired by visions of an Olympic race.