When Michael Torke returns to Wisconsin this May for the world premiere of his “Music at Night” by the Sheboygan Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, it’ll bring him back to the state where the popular composer’s long, accomplished music career got started.
The SSO will premiere Torke’s “Music at Night,” a work commissioned for the orchestra’s 100th anniversary, as part of its season-ending concert on Saturday, May 11, at the Stefanie H. Weill Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Sheboygan.
The 7:30 p.m. concert will also include “Lift Up Your Heads” from Handel’s “Messiah” and Mahler’s monumental Second Symphony, the “Resurrection.” Tickets are available at weillcenter.com.
Born in Milwaukee and raised in Wauwatosa, Torke, who started composing at age 5, wrote his first orchestral work when he was a bassoon player for Milwaukee Music for Youth in the mid-1970s. So it’s fitting that Wisconsin’s oldest continuous orchestra would celebrate its centennial by debuting a work by a native son.
“Music at Night” is a 12-minute piece for orchestra and chorus that uses the “music of the spheres” text from Act V of William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant Of Venice.”
“In 1994, I wrote incidental music for the New York Public Theater’s production of ‘Merchant of Venice,’” Torke said. “I’ve always been interested in how to set Shakespeare’s words to music and what that means. And this classic Shakespeare text refers to music directly, so it is ideal.
“This idea given to me by the Sheboygan Symphony, to take the same text used by Vaughn Williams in his ‘Serenade to Music’ and compose a new score, got me very inspired.”
The work is mainly homophonic with the chorus singing chords together, although eventually Torke divides the voices into as many as eight parts before bringing them back together for the conclusion.
“My hope is that it will have a beautiful effect,” said Torke, who will discuss his work with SSO Music Director and Conductor Kevin McMahon during the free, pre-concert Interludes program on May 11. “There are certain lines for the woodwinds leading in and decorating. The brass is playing chords sung by the chorus, so there is a call and answer. All in all, it should have a unified intention.”
Torke’s reputation as a composer is clear, having been called “the Ravel of his generation” who has written “some of the most optimistic, joyful and thoroughly uplifting music to appear in recent years …” And while Torke appreciates the good words, he said he doesn’t intentionally write “optimism” into his works.
“Like anyone, I can be really cynical and dark, but my music comes out sounding hopeful,” Torke said. “Is that an expression of me? There are those who view art as self-expression, and because we’re human then it follows that art is about pain, darkness and all these awful things, and the belief is that’s when art becomes profound. Of course, I don’t agree with that.”
A prolific composer who has written for nearly every genre, including opera, orchestral, ensemble, chamber and solo pieces, Torke, who owns his own recording label and publishing company, isn’t afraid to stretch himself. In January of 2019, the Albany Symphony and violinist Tessa Lark gave the world premiere of his bluegrass-inspired concerto.
“I didn’t know anything about bluegrass,” Torke said. “Tessa came from Kentucky and she was teaching me the music and it opened my ears up to something completely different. When I learned to speak that language, what comes out is this weird hybrid. It’s a way to breathe new energy into my style by going outside of it.”
Michael Torke is related to the family that owns Torke Coffee in Sheboygan. Where the family tree connects isn’t exactly clear, although it stems from three German brothers who immigrated to Wisconsin just before the Civil War, including one who settled in Sheboygan County. He grew up in suburban Milwaukee in a tight-knit family with both sets of grandparents living five minutes away and all his cousins also living nearby.
He has some vivid memories from childhood, including the Wauwatosa East marching band being part of the 1977 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City.
“I dreamed every night in color of New York and vowed that that was where I would live,” Torke said. “Somehow, when you’re raised in Wisconsin, you have a different view of life. I didn’t understand irony at all, but in New York and Los Angeles, people often communicate though irony. My dad was a staunch, Midwest, conservative guy who said ‘You know Michael, East and West coast people are very sophisticated and not to be trusted.’
“Even though I wanted to escape from Wisconsin the moment I graduated from high school, I am really glad I had that wholesome upbringing where I was taught the value of work ethic and honesty.”
He doesn’t doubt that the Wisconsin influence has worked its way into his music, including the work that will debuted on May 11 by the SSO.
“I have a straightforward approach to music that’s very direct, very un-ironic that has done me well,” Torke said. “A 100th anniversary is such a great occasion. I hope I’ve set the right tone for the Sheboygan Symphony’s audience and musicians.”
(Photo by Bryan Hainer)