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Torke: An Italian Straw Hat / Wilkins, Et Al

Release Date: 04/26/2005 
Label:  Ecstatic Records   Catalog #: 92207   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Michael Torke
Conductor:  Ormsby Wilkins
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Canada National Ballet Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 0 Hours 58 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Michael Torke (neither this disc nor his Web site give a birth date, but he’s currently in his early forties) erupted onto the scene with his Ecstatic Orange (1985) for orchestra, which brashly combined the energy of minimalist motorism with Bernsteinian harmony. It was an immediate hit, and was followed by a series of “color” pieces that established his reputation. Many of them also were adapted into the repertoire of the New York City Ballet by Peter Martins, and from this Torke found a new avenue for his creativity, as a dance composer. This work is an original full-length score commissioned by the National Ballet of Canada, Torke’s second for the troupe (the first was based on the Pied Piper legend).

An Italian Straw Hat
Read more is a farce set in Belle Époque Paris (the original Eugène Labiche play has seen earlier adaptations as, among others, a René Clair film, and a Nino Rota opera). The complications derive from the accidental consumption of a lady’s hat by a horse, which will expose an affair unless the horse’s owner can find a replacement. Like a great screwball comedy, things get ever more complex, labyrinthine, and ridiculous as several sexual pairings intersect, conflict, and (ultimately) resolve.

Torke’s language, like that of so many, has become more conservative, and this score does not break new ground stylistically. It is, however, beautifully crafted, full of good spirit, and obviously attuned to the needs of its collaborators and the desires of its audience. If there is any composer who lurks in the wings, it (surprisingly) is Rossini, with his restless accelerating crescendos, which intersect nicely with Torke’s practice. The other major influence is Broadway, most notably in the more slow and lyrical “Top of the Eiffel Tower” and the pas de deux between Ferdinand and Helène, each of which could possibly be taken as previously unknown works of Sondheim. This reminds us how, historically, the dance stage has been closely related to the lyric one, a connection almost forgotten during the rigors of modernism.

Torke at his most original tends to take clear, pealing pop harmonies, give them an energy that comes out of minimalist practice, and slice and dice with the rhythmic asymmetries associated with modernism (in particular Stravinsky). But there’s only one number in its entirely where I sense a fully personal voice, a “Fashion Show” sequence. Here, over a steady C? drone, one gets a slyly sidestepping, stately processional that suggests both the hauteur and the monotony of the runway. With its motives floating in a sort of sonic mobile, it’s catchy and haunting.

This project seems to have been designed to be on sale at the actual concert premiere of the ballet, as it was recorded in December 2004, for a performance premiere on May 1, 2005. If so, it’s a cunning strategy more ensembles and institutions should consider. I only hope every balletomane present picked up a copy.

The National Ballet Orchestra of Canada sounds energetically up to par with the demands of the music, and the sound is sumptuous. I admit, I’m not ravished by Torke’s entire score, but neither am I put off. I admire its craft and find pleasure in its sophisticated entertainment values. I suspect in the long run if it finds its place in the repertoire, it will be as a dance score and not a concert piece, but a few shorter excerpts, such as the aforementioned “Fashion Show” and the two slow pieces, might well work nicely on symphonic programs.

Robert Carl, FANFARE
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Works on This Recording

An Italian Straw Hat by Michael Torke
Conductor:  Ormsby Wilkins
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Canada National Ballet Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
Date of Recording: 12/2004 
Venue:  Glenn Gould Studio, Toronto, Canada 
Length: 58 Minutes 23 Secs. 
Notes: Composition written: USA (2004 - 2005). 

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