Although Michael Torke is known for his flashy, relentlessly rhythmic orchestra and chamber music, he had mixed feelings when asked to compose a concerto featuring percussion soloist Colin Currie.
"I actually don't like percussion concertos," Torke said last week.
"You tend to have this phenomenon where you put all the instruments out onstage, and you have some special lighting, and everyone oohs and aahs at the visual spectacle. Then there's the physical spectacle of the percussionist, arms flying, going here, going there. It almost doesn't matter what they play. As long as it's this huge spectacle, everyone thinks it's great."
Torke got over his reservations and wrote Rapture, a percussion concerto Currie will play with the Florida Orchestra this weekend. The composer will be here for the rehearsals and performances because he has revised the work.
Currie, a Scotsman, premiered the concerto with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in 2001 and recorded it on a CD of Torke's music on the Naxos label. He is looking forward to the new version.
"If everything lines up, if we find the groove together as a unit, the piece really is exciting," he said.
The revision has less to do with the soloist than with the orchestra behind him. "There were some orchestrational things that I could do to make the piece work in a much more aurally effective way," Torke said.
The concerto features Currie on an array of percussion, from tom-toms to marimba to brake drums. But as a practical matter, the sound from the instruments spread across the front of the stage can function as a barrier to details in the orchestra, defeating a point Torke is trying to make with the work. Unlike the traditional romantic concerto, in which the soloist is pitted against the orchestra, Rapture is meant to be a seamless whole.
"I came up with this idea that there'd be a one-to-one correspondence between every percussive event that Colin would do and the orchestra," Torke said. "The orchestra is literally shadowing everything that he's doing. In order for this concerto to work, everyone has to be in synch. I think it's saying something philosophically different about what a concerto can accomplish."
Torke has been unsatisfied with previous performances of the concerto in which some orchestra sections couldn't be heard as clearly as he wants them to be. Thus the revision, which mainly beefs up the instrumentation. It will be performed for the first time this weekend.
"That's a reason I'm coming down; I want to see if it works," said Torke, who lives in New York.
The program also includes Mozart's Symphony No. 29 and Shchedrin's Carmen Suite, a set of ballet arrangements of numbers from the Bizet opera. Sunday's concert at Ruth Eckerd Hall is at 2 p.m. so it won't conflict with the Super Bowl in the evening.
Susan Haig, who is conducting a Torke piece for the first time, expects rehearsals of Rapture to be intense.
"We'll basically have three rehearsals to get it together," she said. "Our first rehearsal will be one day before the performance, which is amazing when you think about it. Some sections will be fine because the soloist takes the brunt of it. I'll need to focus on other sections that are particularly tricky. You let the music be the teacher, and with this, we need to get it internalized very quickly."
Torke, 42, is one of the most successful composers of his generation. His color-themed orchestra pieces with titles like Green, Purple, Ecstatic Orange, Ash and Bright Blue Music are especially popular. The Florida Orchestra played his Javelin, an infectious showpiece commissioned for the Atlanta Olympics, in 1996.
Nowadays, the big pieces he is working on are for the stage: The Italian Straw Hat for the National Ballet of Canada and House of Mirth, a musical based on the Edith Wharton novel, with book and lyrics by playwright A.R. Gurney.
Torke is intrigued by musical theater. "I just think that contemporary musical theater is, dare I say this, completely devoid of melody; that the composers who are writing for the commercial theater have just lost it, compared to the '20s, '30s and '40s, when people wrote these great melodies," he said.
"Even in pop music today, we've lost a sense of melody that we had with someone like Burt Bacharach doing these very sophisticated, melodic things that were so popular and hooky in the '60s. My challenge is to write melody that is simple and straightforward."