It seemed the right occasion for a concert that was a bit off the wall.
To honor the 75th anniversary of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, admission to Meyerhoff Hall was 75 cents.
David Zinman and the BSO begin recording sessions today for a compact disc of Michael Torke works, so a tune-up concert of Torke's music seemed appropriate on the eve of the sessions.
And to give a tonic of the familiar to the audience (as well as a rest to the Torked-out BSO brass players), Zinman added to the program Samuel Barber's hit "Adagio for Strings" and Francis Poulenc's mish-mash of eclectica, the Organ Concerto, performed by James David Christie.
Of course, the real reason for the evening was Torke's "Verdant Music," "Purple," and "Ecstatic Orange," all of which will be on the new BSO/Torke disc on the Decca/Argo label.
The composer was on hand to share some discussion/banter with Zinman, who had entertaining comments for each of Torke's works.
About "Verdant Music," with its myriad of imitation, Zinman asked Torke if he spent "a lot of time in polyphonic therapy." "Purple," he said, was a cross between Stravinsky and "Leave it to Beaver" (though he didn't mention "Man of La Mancha," which I thought bore a striking resemblance.) And "Ecstatic Orange" was "a rock version of 'The Rite of Spring.'"
All good fun. Zinman is very engaging when he speaks informally about music, and Torke seems to be a good sport. Listening to the three pieces in succession, one is impressed by the facility of the writing and the vibrancy of the music's attitude, but one is also left with a vague question whether there is anything that lies outside this music's self-referential circle.
At its best, Torke's work creates in the listener a kind of ecstatic contemplation of the endless possibilities of rhythm and sensuous color. This is light music, and we're talking not of weight but of hue. Even "Purple," Torke's darkest shade, has a kind of muted effervescence.
If the aesthetic of disco informs Torke's music, as Zinman says, then what does that say about such a long-held principle as expression, for example? Probably that it does not apply to this music, or perhaps that the concept is dead for music of the '90s.
But then, isn't it disco that died?
Christie performed the Poulenc concerto on an electronic organ that sadly must suffice for a real pipe organ, which Meyerhoff Hall still lacks. Written in 1938, it is schlock music in the best sense of the word. Poulenc steals from everybody, Bach to Tchaikovsky, then whips it up in his own clever blender. But being schlock, it's got to go by fast. Christie's tempos seemed overly sedate and the music veered into the treacly.