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Posts tagged 'Michael Hersch'

Michael Hersch's "On the Threshold of Winter" Available to Stream Online

“The essence of Michael Hersch’s music,” soprano Ah Young Hong reflects, “is being alone in your thoughts. To be able to have this incredibly earth-shattering silence that is screaming at you—the internal world that we have to grapple with. That is what is so unforgiving and powerful about his work.” 

Hong’s relationship to Hersch’s music is unique: beginning in 2014, she has performed the solo role of On the Threshold of Winterin three productions, the third of which she directed, across six cities in North America, and is the only singer in the world to have performed the work to date. Of the premiere, Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim wrote in the New York Times

"Mr. Hersch's music, for all its dark and fragile beauty, offer neither comfort nor catharsis. A traumatized silence clung to the Fishman Space auditorium after the last line sung by the soprano Ah Young Hong, the opera's blazing, lone star."

In 2015, Hong worked closely with Hersch, the chamber ensemble NUNC led by Miranda Cuckson, and director James Matthew Daniel, to produce this filmed performance of the opera, which is now available to stream. 

With what Anne Midgette called a “cold, uncompromising brilliance,”On the Threshold of Winter sets texts by Romanian poet Marin Sorescu, written during the last five weeks of his life while dying from liver cancer. Hersch’s libretto transforms those texts, which were dedicated by Sorescu “to those who suffer,” into a monodrama in two acts, in which Hong’s character is both in time and out of time, at turns raging against death and struggling to accept its inevitability. For Hong, Hersch’s instrumental writing functions to illustrate the structure of her character’s mind, at times with directly audible relationships between her voice and an instrument—always cut short, however, and prevented from reaching resolution. 

It is precisely this denial of resolution that Hong finds so powerful in Hersch’s work: it ultimately enjoins both her and her audience to experience this work alone. That isolation, however, produces a kind of rare empathy, emerging from what she calls the “dark world” of the monodrama into a shared connection and emotional release. She describes this as an exploration of the crevices and folds in one’s soul that normally remains that untouched, with Hersch’s music functioning as a liquid that seeps in, forcing a reconciliation with the pain and agony of death. Indeed, in the last moment of the work, she sings Sorescu’s words: “Terrible is the passage/ Into the fold/ Both for man/ And / Animal.”

In James Matthew Daniel’s 2015 production, Hong is joined on stage by other bodies: or, more precisely, almost-bodies of broken plaster, producing abject remnants of dust and blood. These life-size sculptures, by artist Christopher Cairns, both complicate and emphasize the isolation of Hong’s character on stage; she, too, will become abject in death. 

Indeed, watching this filmed performance in the time of COVID-19 adds another complicating fold to the power of Hersch’s work. At the time of its premiere, suffering, illness, and death were still topics that could still be largely avoided in everyday life. With the world thrust into a pandemic, Hersch’s work perhaps takes on a renewed sense of power in its confrontation with these abject experiences. For Hong, emerging from this work produces a renewed empathy for both herself and her community of family and friends, a renewed reconciliation with human mortality. 

Weekly Playlist: Michael Hersch

PSNY continues its new, weekly Composer Playlist series this week by featuring the work of Michael Hersch, which the Baltimore Sun describes as having "great originality, daring, and disturbing power." Indeed, Hersch's works often explore the profound depths of human experience—as the New York Times describes it, Hersch's work is “viscerally gripping and emotionally transformative music ... claustrophobic and exhilarating at once, with moments of sublime beauty nestled inside thickets of dark virtuosity.” Hersch's music evokes many emotions particular to the current world crisis—and offers, perhaps, a necessary meditation on grief, loss, and ultimately the resilience of the human spirit. 

1. Hersch's 2015 Violin Concerto, commissioned and premiered by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and violnist Patricia Kopatchinskaja

2. Das Rückgrat berstend, also commissioned and premiered by Hersch's longtime collaborator Kopatchinskaja in 2017, in which the violnist also speaks fragment of the poetry of Christopher Middleton, accompanied by cello: 

3. Images from a Closed Ward, Hersch's 2010 string quartet commissioned by the Blair String Quartet, which responds to etchings by the artist Michael Mazur

4. On the Threshold of Winter, a 2012 monodrama which saw a recent production at George Washington University, directed and performed by Ah Young Hong:

FLUX Quartet Performs Michael Hersch's "Images from a Closed Ward" with Live Video Projection

The music of Michael Hersch often addresses some of the most intense of human emotions and events: loss, suffering, pain, and darkness, what frequent collaborator Patricia Kopatchinskaja calls "this dark side, this shadow and blood." Indeed, the work that inspired Kopatchinskaja to work with Hersch was his 2010 string quartet, Images from a Closed Ward, which emerged from Hersch's encounter with the visual art of Michael Mazur, whom Hersch met in 2000 at the American Academy of Rome. This 13-movement string quartet responds directly to Mazur's gripping series of etchings and lithographs that depict the lives of residents—many of whom were committed against their will—at a Rhode Island mental institution in the early 1960s. 

The isolation, pain, and sorrow of Mazur's work is directly evoked in this masterful string quartet's movements, which transition between what the New York Times has called "creeping dread and desperate urgency." Hersch's gestural language seamlessly moves through texture, timbre, and harmony, using the four instruments of the string quartet as an organic being that convulses and laments, both statically and dynamically. In evoking the pain of disabled people treated with injustice and violence from a broken institutional system, it also allows listeners to imagine possibilities for restitution, justice, and ultimately peace.

A Lithograph by Michael Mazur  A Lithograph by Michael Mazur 

Originally commissioned and premiered by the Blair String Quartet in 2012, Images from a Closed Ward was recently recorded by the FLUX Quartet and released on New Focus Recordings in 2018. In addition to this new recording, the FLUX Quartet has also performed Images from a Closed Ward with a new live video projection, designed by James Matthew Daniel, which superimposes images of Mazur's works, excerpts of poetry, documentary photographs from mental institutions in the mid-20th-century, and other documentation related to those institutions on the performing quartet. The result is an even more powerful event that combines Hersch's sonic language with the visual work and poetry to which it responds, contextualizing and placing the quartet in the middle of a multi-sensory field. 

This video, taken from a performance at Philadelphia's Icebox Project Space, documents the FLUX Quartet's masterful performance of Hersch's work, and serves both as a compliment to their recent recording and also as a standalone work with its own unique combination of audio-visual poetics. Watch the full performance below.

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