Even though its title suggests some musical association with the 1967 song by the Beatles -- perhaps even a direct borrowing from it, as in Alvin Lucier's remarkable Nothing is Real (Strawberry Fields Forever) -- Michael Torke's one-act opera is only indirectly linked through its setting: the section of New York City's Central Park named Strawberry Fields in memory of John Lennon. Composed in 1999 on a libretto by A.R. Gurney, this work was conceived as the second part of a trilogy on the subject of Central Park, along with The Festival of Regrets by Deborah Drattell and Wendy Wasserstein, and The Food of Love by Robert Beaser and Terrence McNally. Torke's and Gurney's work revolves on the quirky behavior and musings of an unnamed elderly woman who believes that she is attending the opera, though she is merely sitting on a park bench. Her interactions with her family and strangers who pass by are confused and pathetic; but through her conversations with an idealistic student, who expresses a passion for Lennon's music equal to the old woman's love of Verdi, she is able to make a tentative connection with the real world.
Torke's soft-edged patterns, lush harmonies, and gentle orchestration are well-suited to the sentimental story, and the Albany Symphony Orchestra, under David Allen Miller, provides a glowing accompaniment to the compelling performances of Joyce Castle as Old Lady, Jeffrey Lentz as Student, and the other accomplished vocalists in the supporting cast. On the whole, however, the music is too stratified and too evenly textured, with only a few peaks to provide variety. Furthermore, the vocal parts aren't memorably melodic, and most of the stilted dialog is delivered in forgettable minimalist recitative. But the opera's overall effect is not unpleasant, and Strawberry Fields has a rich, if melodramatic, payoff.
Pentecost (2004) was originally commissioned to be a work for soprano, organ, and strings, but in the present version for soprano and full orchestra, it is intended to serve as a companion piece to Strawberry Fields (and meant to be more than filler for this disc.) Torke's music here is almost as atmospheric and sweet as it is in the opera, which makes them suitably matched. However, its warm tone, bright timbres, and perky rhythms are a bit too cheerful for a setting of apocalyptic verses from the Acts of the Apostles (2:17, 2:19-20, 2:21). One might prefer instead a secular text for this piece, or perhaps an instrumental version, since Torke's pretty music and sumptuous orchestration add nothing meaningful to the Biblical words, and they in turn seem almost irrelevant in this extremely lush score. Even so, soprano Margaret Lloyd is brilliant in tone and expression, and her performance with Miller and the ASO is wonderful to hear. Ecstatic's sound quality is clear and naturally resonant.