IN THE FIVE years that David Zinman has been music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Baltimore audiences have heard more contemporary music than their peers in other cities.
Zinman has introduced a steady diet of new works on BSO programs, but he has selected the music carefully. Many symphony audiences emerged from concerts in the '60s and '70s, when serialism and atonality held sway in universities and concert halls, feeling alienated from new music.
But Zinman has programmed many composers of the so-called New Romanticism movement, which has produced music for symphony orchestras that is often more approachable on an immediate level and not opposed to using older principles such as tonality and recurring rhythmic patterns.
This month, Zinman has taken the BSO's commitment to new music one step further. The newly instituted American Composers Showcase, which focuses on the life and works of an American composer, has been under way this month. Michael Torke, a 29-year-old composer who studied at the Eastman School of Music, is the subject of this year's event, and his music is being performed on nearly every concert the BSO will present in September.
"Michael has a very distinctive voice, when you hear his music you say immediately, 'That's a Michael Torke piece,'" says Zinman.
Tomorrow at 8:15 p.m. in Meyerhoff Hall, Zinman will conduct the BSO in a concert that will feature three works of Torke, "Verdant Music," "Purple" and "Ecstatic Orange." Also on the program are two crowd-pleasers, Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" (now identified to many as the theme music to the movie "Platoon") and Francis Poulenc's Organ Concerto.
Ticket prices are extremely low: 75 cents per seat. The special price is to commemorate the BSO's 75th anniversary this year. Also, it is not a part of the BSO's regular subscription season.
So, for the price of a restaurant cup of coffee, you can hear a top-rank symphony orchestra under its first-string conductor perform some favorites as well as the music of a composer who is one of the rising stars of the contemporary music scene.
Following the concert this week, Zinman will lead the BSO in recording sessions for the Decca/Argo label to produce a compact disc devoted to the music of Torke. The BSO recently signed a four-disc deal with the London-based label to record music of American composers.
The orchestra's American Composer Showcase has been designed not only to focus attention on an American composer but to allow the orchestra a few concerts to tune up before making recordings of the composer's works.
Torke has a four-year deal of his own with Decca/Argo, as well as an exclusive contract with the prestigious publisher Boosey & Hawkes. But Zinman was a supporter of Torke's career before his current popularity, programming his works on BSO series and taking them on his guest-conducting stints with other orchestras.
"There is a definite surface appeal to Michael's music," Zinman says, "its rhythm derives from the dance -- disco really -- and its surface is very colorful. But beneath the exterior there is really a lot going on that is very complex, and very wonderful to experience on a deeper level."
Zinman says this wealth of detail can make Torke's music difficult for orchestras. "It is filled with imitation, canons and hockets, which are very hard for a player to bring off when the person sitting in the next chair is playing something very similar but just slightly different rhythmically," he says. (Canons and hockets are musical techniques that cause the simultaneous performance of the same melodic material, like a round in popular nursery song.)
Many of Torke's works are keyed to color. The composer ha been interested in the rare disease called synesthesia, where humans visualize colors when they hear music. Torke's works often aim to create color associations in the listener, hence the coloristic titles.
"Michael is a brilliant orchestrator, which is why he can create these very bright pallettes of color," says Zinman. "When we decided to do the compact disc of Torke, I said 'Great, if for no other reason than the cover, which should at least be colorful.' "