Michael Torke: Unconquered. The Philadelphia Orchestra, Cristian Măcelaru (conductor)
Ecstatic Records ER 092271. Total Time: 25:46
By Richard S. Ginell
DIGITAL REVIEW — Michael Torke broke through in the 1980s with brash, leaping, repetitive, Beethovenian, Stravinskian, danceable symphonic workouts on the Ecstatic Orange album. It was a personal fusion of elements of the neo-Romantic and minimalist strains that were floating around then with some of the kinetic energy of rock and the syncopation of jazz. He caught on; this was concert music that was fun to listen and move to, if you dared.
But that was then. In his new, four-movement symphony Unconquered — commissioned by the Saratoga Performing Arts Center for its 50th anniversary in 2016 — most of the basic elements of the Torke fusion can be heard, but there is now a more measured seriousness of purpose, a dampening of some of the old pizzazz.
While Torke is all too aware that patriotism is considered “suspect” in the artistic community in the 21st century, Unconquered nevertheless was inspired by the Battle of Saratoga during the American Revolution. That’s a rebellion in itself, yet underneath the patriotic theme, I sense another rebellion — an attempt to return to the spirit and, to some extent, the sound of the now-out-of-fashion American symphonic manner that reached its peak in the middle of the 20th century. It was the heyday of Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, William Schuman, Walter Piston, Howard Hanson, David Diamond, and several others — an Americana that knew no politics in particular and got lost shortly after the passing and posthumous triumph of Arnold Schoenberg.
The opening movement, “Summon,” takes off on a noble, vigorous, rising seven-note motif and works it out stirringly in Torke’s repetitive yet intricate manner. “Dawn” also keeps on repeating things, but with a different, more subdued idea to riff upon. “Advance” is the scherzo that revs up the patriotic feeling again. Yet the initial inspiration flames out somewhat in the “Liberty” finale; it sounds like a forced apotheosis celebrating the birth of a new country — admittedly not an easy thing to pull off anytime, let alone in these cynical times.
The upward-rising Cristian Măcelaru, who starts his second summer as music director of the Cabrillo Festival in August and will become the chief conductor of the WDR Sinfonieorchester in 2019, gets the Philadelphia Orchestra to produce an enthusiastic, all-stops-out performance. He didn’t have much of a presence on recordings before this, but I expect that is going to change now.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.