When the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and music director David Zinman first performed a piece by Michael Torke, the 24-year-old composer was almost a complete unknown. This month -- four years later -- Zinman is conducting what amounts to a Torke festival. In the classical music world, which moves with the speed of a glacier, this means that Torke is an overnight sensation.
Last week the orchestra performed Torke's "Ash," this week they will perform "Bright Blue Music" and next week they will perform "Verdant Music," "Purple" and "Ecstatic Orange." Zinman and the orchestra will record all of this music for the prestigious Argo label at the end of the month.
"It's nothing," Torke says about his success. "Think about what success means in almost any other profession. Write a piece that a few orchestras play and you're a big success in mine."
In attempting to be modest, Torke is less than completely candid. At 28 he is able to do what even well-known, older classical composers can't: Earn a living by writing music without having to teach. Moreover, he has been able to do what most young professionals -- whether lawyers, doctors or financial analysts -- only dream of doing in New York City: He has just bought his own apartment.
He is the most successful classical composer of his generation. His exclusive recording contract with Argo recalls those of Philip Glass with Sony Classics or -- at an earlier time -- those of Aaron Copland and Igor Stravinsky with the same label when it was called Columbia. In fact the parallel with Stravinsky acquires even greater force when one realizes that Torke has written more music for the New York City Ballet than any composer since the great Russian.
According to Zinman, there's no secret to Torke's appeal.
"Michael has the knack of writing terrific music with an incredibly popular touch," the conductor says. "Orchestras like to program new music that will be immediately likable and Michael's music is that. There may be some listeners who carp that the music lacks depth, but it doesn't -- it's just a different kind of music with a NTC different kind of depth. His point of view is that of a kid in the late '80s and '90s. If we get younger people into these concerts, they'll hear stuff they can really groove on."
The composer says he enjoys knowing that audiences like his music, but he warns that composers must nevertheless try to please themselves.
"I think I'm an average listener and this is how I listen to music," Torke says. "I throw on this or that. And what I like to write are things that I would throw on my own cassette machine -- and enjoy."
His music is almost unbelievably rhythmic, often with bouncy pop music-like syncopations that sound like invitations to the dance floor. Like the top-40 tunes one hears on the radio, Torke's are optimistic and propulsive. Yet his music has a mastery that moves a listener from one point to another like a juggernaut. In "Ash," Torke takes an F minor chord and refuses, in the manner of minimalism, to let go of it. But he also subjects it to all manner of permutations, orchestrating it with a myriad of colors that makes a listener sorry when the piece is over. "Bright Blue Music," which the orchestra plays this week, is filled with scraps and tantalizing fragments of waltz tunes. It is exuberantly happy, playful music and it hard to listen to sitting down because it makes one want to twirl around the room.
If it seems unusual for symphonic music to be so influenced by the dance rhythms of pop, remember that Torke is honoring a great classical tradition: Baroque dances infuse almost everything Bach wrote and Viennese waltzes provided Gustav Mahler with material for some of his most sensual and bizarre moments. This tradition was ambushed during most of this century because of classical music's preoccupation with high seriousness and innovation. It seems to have returned now in the work of composers such as Philip Glass, Christopher Rouse, Tod Machover and -- perhaps pre-eminently -- Torke.
In any case, Torke says that it would be impossible for him to ignore pop music. He listens to it and -- when he was a student at the Eastman School of Music -- he used to play it.
"Think of the tape collections most people have," he says. "Pop music forms one part of it and classics form another. These are the two kinds of music I really like. They have their own kind of energy and they're both meaningful."
What often happens when Torke listens to a pop song he likes is that a bass line sticks in his mind. "It's a rhythmic thing," he says. "I assign my own pitches to it and completely turn it around."
But it's more than the driving beat that Torke likes about pop music and its influence upon him, he says, is as philosphical as it is musical.
"I'm attracted to it because it has no pretensions," the composer says. "It realizes that if it is to work it has to communicate simply. That's a feature of music that had been lost for a while, and I want it always to be a feature of the music I write."