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The Music of Michael Hersch



The music of Michael Hersch, as Alex Ross has written in The New Yorker, is "harsh, relentless, and [...] gripping in its dogged progress." Writing in The New York Times, Corinna de Fonesca-Wollheim calls it "bleak," "dark," "somber," and "anguished." But as de Fonesca-Wollheim reminds us, to many of Hersch's collaborators and listeners, this music is also necessary. As Hersch's frequent collaborator, the violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja has said: “The despair in the music makes it a necessary experience, to play and to listen to [...] There is nothing you can compare it to.”

In Hersch's 2015 Violin Concerto, commissioned by Kopatchinskaja and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Hersch presents a raw nerve, something abject—and hence something powerful and potentially life-changing. As Kopatchinskaja notes, “I’m every time really overwhelmed, and I’m a bit scared to play his music, again and again… but I know it’s very necessary for our time.”


(Patricia Kopatchinskaja on the music of Michael Hersch)

Recently recorded by Kopatchinskaja and the International Contemporary Ensemble, and released on New Focus Recordings, Hersch’s Violin Concerto was named the Best Violin Concerto of 2018 by Sequenza21. It responds directly to the death of a close friend. As Aaron Grad writes, “the four movements of Hersch’s concerto align like a series of interconnected islands of sound around an essential but unknowable vanishing point.” The concerto begins with an epigraph constructed of two fragments of poems by Thomas Hardy, and ends:

Strange sounds of anger and sadness
That cut the heart’s core,
And shaken words bitter to madness;
And then no more.


This poetic epigraph anticipates Hersch’s instructions to the instrumentalists: they are to play “ferociously”, and when the violin enters, it is to play “brutally throughout.” Kopatchinskaja comments on Hersch’s writing for the violin: “...the Violin Concerto is an open wound, there is no other way to say it. I know no other work by a composer of my generation that is so convincing, that moves me so deeply, [...] that tolerates neither doubt nor objection. It is like a mountain one can't ignore. For me, Michael Hersch embodies the new generation after icons like György Kurtág or György Ligeti. With him, everything is crystal clear, there is no decoration, no superficial beauty, no compromises. Everything is exactly in place, has found its perfect form."


Hersch’s 2010 string quartet Images from a Closed Ward was described by The Philadelphia Inquirer as one that "[leaves] you in a figurative blindfold taken off momentarily to glimpse another previously unimaginable terrain." The piece traces its origins to an encounter Hersch had with etchings by the American artist Michael Mazur (1935–2009). Like his Violin ConcertoImages from a Closed Ward explores what Mazur called an “overwhelming sense of ‘sadness’ [...] a complicated, and therefore interesting human condition.” Hersch's music can be "unrelenting, nearly without hope ... But no artwork can be without hope since it is in the very nature of creative work to be optimistic, if only in as much as we continue to work through everything but our own death.”

 

Hersch explicitly explored illness and death in his 2012 monodrama, On the Threshold of Winter, which sets texts by the Romanian author Marin Sorescu's book The Bridge, written on his deathbed. It responds directly to the death of a close friend to cancer, and Hersch's own struggle with the disease. Premiered in 2014, On the Threshold of Winter "left the audience shellshocked and the soloist, the soprano Ah Young Hong, in tears." As Andrew Farach-Colton writes in his program note for the monodrama,

Ultimately, our consolation is found in Hersch's art itself: in the richness of his imagination, and the precision and concision of his musical language. But, most of all, it is in his humanity, which shines like a beacon through the score's darkest page. 

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