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Torke, Michael (b. 1961) – ‘Javelin’

As a child of the Beach Boys’ generation, Torke seems to have taken their words to heart: ‘I Get Around’. Starting from Eastman and Yale, he and his music have popped up on both sides of the Atlantic - for example, the Netherlands (Radio Philharmonic, Dance Theatre), American ballet (notably New York City) and, in the UK, BBC Television and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (their first Associate Composer). 

Torke is much talked about. Gramophone magazine called him the composer of ‘some of the most optimistic, joyful and thoroughly uplifting music [of] recent years’, whilst the New York Times considered him ‘a master orchestrator whose shimmering timbral palette makes him the Ravel of his generation’. Some justification for such embarrassing praise can be found in his commissions: opera and ballet scores, a large-scale oratorio for ‘the’ Millennium and, of course, Javelin

Written in 1994, this ‘sonic olympiad’ was commissioned by the 1996 Olympics Committee. Strange as it may seem, the occasion celebrated was not directly the Olympics, but the 50th. anniversary of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The music has two basic components. Firstly, busily darting and arching figurations, interrupted by dramatic staccati, giving the impression of not just a javelin, but lots of javelins flying all over the place. Secondly, periodically threading under, over and through the athletic activity is an ‘optimistic, joyful and thoroughly uplifting’ melody. For me, this had a familiar ring. 

In this piece, Torke puts me in mind of Walton in ‘occasional’ mode, but minus the latter’s acerbic edge. This worried me not one jot, until I discovered that a recording of Javelin reached Number One - in Billboard’s ‘Classical Crossover’ chart. The ‘ring’ rang a bell! The optimistic theme sounds like the music from countless optimistic and uplifting American TV movies, right down to the cliché of its ‘uplift’ onto a high phrase and the subsequent aimless descent. 

Is that a Bad Thing? Not at all. About the nocturnal episode in the first movement of Mahler’s Seventh, someone once asked me, ‘Don’t you think it’s a bit, well, Hollywood?’ Torke, it seems, is in good company. More importantly, Javelin is beautifully crafted and highly enjoyable music. Although the comparison with Ravel might be pushing it a bit, Torke demonstrates an uncommonly good ear for colour, with lots of perceptively-placed percussion. One thing more: clichéd or not, that tune does not easily give up its place in your memory. 
 


© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


 

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