16 April 2018

Michael Hersch, American Visionary at the NOVA Chamber Music Series

I don't remember when or why I started listening to Michael Hersch's music, but I've been doing so for years, and in all that time I had only heard one piece live – a song he wrote for Thomas Hampson, based on a passage from Thomas Hardy. So when I was randomly checking the composer's website and saw that in the last week of January 2018 the NOVA Chamber Music Series in Salt Lake City was performing three substantial works by him – The Vanishing PavilionsLast Autumn, and On the Threshold of Winter – I decided it would be a good idea to take my first trip to the Beehive State.

I flew in on Sunday afternoon, which gave me enough time to figure out the location of the concert venue (the Libby Gardner Concert Hall in Presidents Circle at the University of Utah) in relation to my hotel (the University Park Marriott), before the first concert: The Vanishing Pavilions, played by pianist and NOVA Artistic Director Jason Hardink. I had checked for hotels near the University of Utah and found a nice one about a mile away, though since the music building is on the other side of the campus it was actually two miles away. That proved to be a good distance to walk after the concerts, and I was lucky the weather was not as wet and cold as it might have been, so I could ponder and decompress under the stars.

Each concert was preceded by a short conversation between Hersch and Hardink in a small lecture room down the hall from the auditorium. (I was very impressed that Hardink could conduct an interview right before playing a massive two-and-a-half-hour solo piano piece, but he's clearly a man of many talents). I took some brief notes on what Hersch said; one thing I wrote out right away was his response when he was asked what the impetus was for his composition: he responded that years ago he had started writing only pieces that compelled him because he is "not talented enough to write pieces that don't feel necessary." That really struck me, as our culture tends to favor the divine afflatus over the conscientious craftsman, but I think I saw what he meant: there's tremendous skill and also sensitivity in producing music by the yard, so to speak, the way a composer for film would, as opposed to being guided by your own inner necessity. It seemed typical of a certain tendency towards self-effacement on Hersch's part. He is soft-spoken, considerate with his words, and not at all anecdotal. He would answer each question and then fall silent.

I had sort of assumed that American Visionary was the name NOVA chose for the festival just because visionary always sounds good, but as I listened to Hersch talk about his approach to composition I began to understand that the word had been chosen more precisely than I had assumed. I had not previously considered Hersch a Wagner-like composer, but like Wagner he writes pieces of epic length, in a sound world of his own, uncertain if they will ever actually be performed. He has a distinct way of viewing the world, which I think often gets misunderstood. After Hampson sang that song, he courteously gestured to Hersch, who turned out to be in the audience, and made a deprecating little remark about how bleak his world view was. To me it came across as a bit dismissive, even condescending. I think Hersch sees the world clearly and tried to express his view – his vision – clearly. Obviously it's one I'm sympathetic with, and I've also been dismissed so often as overly gloomy or grim or pretentious that I bristle with a sense of personal identification when I heard remarks like the one Hampson made about Hersch. It was wonderful to be in an audience that was clearly open to what he was saying and how he was saying it.

Maybe this is a good point to mention that the people I spoke to at NOVA, particularly Executive Director Kristin Rector and Digital Content Producer Chris Martin, could not have been nicer or more welcoming to this visitor from California. And I might as well mention here as well that my series pass was so inexpensive ($50 for three concerts) that at first I assumed there was an error on the website. These concerts are clearly going to count as one of the great bargains as well as one of the most artistically exciting events of my year.

(the view from my hotel room)

Back to the talk: The Vanishing Pavilions, like Hersch's ensuing pieces, was written without regard to its practicality. In fact Hersch, a pianist himself, composed it away from the instrument so that he would not be guided or bound by his particular pianistic preferences or defaults. Someone in the audience asked if he would authorize excerpts to be played, and he said no, though on occasion it has happened. Hersch mentioned (he brought this up during one of the other talks as well) that one reason a piece like this isn't done very often is that you need someone who is not only interested in learning a lengthy piece of new music but has the technical skills and stamina required to bring it off.

Someone asked about how he memorized the piece and Hersch replied that there was a process of living with it for a year after the composition (which I think took more than a year; I didn't write that bit of information down in my notes). By then he did have a premiere date for the work and had to scramble a bit as his year of learning the piece was delayed by the birth of his child. (Hardink also played from memory, and I think said it took him about a year to learn it.) Hersch was then asked whether composition was an expression of self or of ideas, and he promptly said it was an expression of the self, which I thought was interesting in a composer so often seen as intellectual, though he immediately pointed out that ideas form part of the self, so there really isn't a clear division there.

The Vanishing Pavilions was completed in 2005 and its fifty segments are divided into two books (there was a brief intermission between the two halves). It is inspired by lines and images from the works of British poet Christopher Middleton. Hersch often works from poetry, or rather fragments and lines of poetry submerged under the music. The program notes by Andrew Farach-Colton for this piece were reprinted from the CD releaseLast Autumn, which is sort of a companion piece to Pavilions, is similarly in two books and inspired by lines from W G Sebald. I was intrigued when Hersch mentioned that he had written a third piece, as yet unperformed, that is five hours long, inspired by a third poet whom he did not name.

When I found out the talks were down the hall I expressed some concern about getting the seats I like (front row) as it was general admission seating, and I was assured that it would not be a problem. Indeed it was not, as the rest of the audience apparently preferred sitting farther back. I was in the front, slightly to the left of the pianist, with no one around me for three rows. It was like a private performance. This is my idea of concert-going heaven. It seemed almost like a bonus that Hardink's performance was so superb, with just breath-taking colors. I think, from something I heard him say later, that the Steinway was his personal instrument, not the one belonging to the concert hall. The music is turbulent and searching, with lyricism slashed through, ending abruptly, the vibrations dying into silence. The audience was attentive and then extremely enthusiastic at the end. Hersch did not come up to take a bow, letting Hardink have the moment.

As I said, it was good to have a long walk under a cold night sky afterwards.

The next night it was back to the Libby Gardner Concert Hall for Last Autumn from 2008, performed by Utah Symphony Acting Principal Horn Edmund Rollett and cellist Noriko Kishi. In the talk before the performance, Hersch mentioned, if I understood him correctly, that this was only the third time the piece had ever been played. He wrote it for specific players; eventually he mentioned that one of them, the horn player, was his brother (Jamie Hersch). I assume the cellist on the recording, Daniel Gaisford, is the other begetter. Apparently the two performers had some sort of falling out that was linked in some way to the piece (as I said, Hersch is not anecdotal and did not go into the details). Hersch quipped that he hoped Edmund and Noriko would not find their friendship damaged by working on the piece. He was asked again about the length of his pieces: basically, does he know where he's going with them, or do they just extend as he works on them – his answer was that he knows where he's going to end up.

The program note for this piece was by Aaron Grad (it is also available on the recording). The texts by Sebald were printed in the program. I read them beforehand but decided not to follow along during the performance, as I can do that easily enough with the recording and it's such a privilege to hear this music live that I might as well bask in it. Though a piece for two players doesn't give the impression of having quite the virtuosic flash of a similarly sized piece for one player, that impression is misleading. NOVA audiences are lucky to have musicians of this level of accomplishment playing for them. Again, I had my private concert experience and was, once again, blown away.

The third and final concert was on Thursday night, this time at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in downtown Salt Lake City. Basically the theater was a large empty room, with the audience sitting in three rows of chairs against the long wall opposite the entrance. On the Threshold of Winter, a monodrama in two acts, had its premiere in 2014. Again, it was written without a commission and was inspired by poetry, in this case The Bridge by Romanian poet Marin Sorescu, written as he was dying of cancer. (The work was translated by Adam J Sorkin and Lidia Vinau and the text was adapted, I assume, by Hersch.) The composer was asked in the pre-concert talk about the circumstances surrounding the creation of this work, which I suspect he would not have brought up himself. He had a close friend who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. What he did not mention in the talk, though it is in the program book, is that while helping her through her illness he himself was also diagnosed with cancer. He survived, she did not.

One of the difficulties Hersch mentioned was finding the right singer for the demanding solo role; in fact he was told that he would never find what he was looking for. It turned out by chance someone had heard soprano Ah Young Hong singing church gigs in Baltimore and recommended her and, as Hersch noted, it was the case of a major artist who had just not yet gotten a break. (She now performs widely and I believe she is the only singer who has performed On the Threshold of Winter. She also directed this production.)

Hersch mentioned in the pre-concert talk that some critics had blamed the piece and him for not "offering hope" and he responded, with undertones of bewilderment and exasperation, that he wasn't trying to "offer hope" – he was trying to express an emotional state. (I was reminded of Hampson's  remark about the composer's bleak worldview). The opera is shattering, but you end up feeling not just shattered but also strengthened – you know, catharsis. That's what seeing someone create art despite pain can do.

The poems and fragments of poems that make up the text occasionally mention the hospital or illness-related matters but the general effect is not clinical; it's emotional, psychological, and spiritual. The singer,who is physically fairly small, was wearing a loose somewhat gauzy white gown, suggesting an angel or a ghost as well as a hospital robe. The text is in English but also projected, which is very helpful because the vocal lines are high and sometimes distorted for expressive effect (as with the operas of Thomas Adès, I wondered about the extent to which surtitles make this style possible by making the words intelligible). The text formed part of the scenic projections, which were mostly black and white with occasional slashes of red, and mostly of natural scenes. We were more likely to be shown the bare black branches of trees in winter than the white corridors of a hospital. The stage is right there in front of us, bare except for some large boxes that Young Hong sometimes sat or walked on or, at one point, knocked over.

I hope there is a recording fairly soon, as this is a score that needs to be listened to several times. (There is, however, a new recording of Ah Young Hong singing Hersch's a breath upwards, along with Babbitt's Philomel.) The music produces moments of astonishing beauty that collapse into confusion, only to rise again. And here I will praise conductor Tito Muñoz and his band – Caitlyn Valovick Moore (flute), Luca de la Florin (oboe), Jaren Hinckley (clarinet), Katie Porter (bass clarinet), Gavin Ryan (percussion), Michael Sheppard (piano), Hugh Palmer (violin), and Walter Haman (cello) – for their expert way with the music. Due to the set-up of the theater, I was not isolated in splendor as I was at the other venue, but the audience was very attentive and involved and quiet, except for one man in my vicinity who kept clearing his throat every few minutes. I think it was just a tic that he and his wife had become unaware of. Not ideal, but it was an interesting counterpoint to a piece that is to some extent about the breakdown of our physical bodies.

This was the only one of the three concerts at which Hersch took a bow, mostly because Young Hong insisted; she also kept directing the enthusiastic applause towards Muñoz and the band. The whole approach was very collegial, very much that of a community of people making art together. It was a beautiful feeling to end on, after a week of intense, emotionally involving music. The whole festival was a triumph.

Bay Area residents who want to hear Hersch's music live can go to the Ojai North concert at Cal Performances in Berkeley on 15 June, which features his latest work (a Cal Performances co-commission), I hope we get a chance to visit soon. (Violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja is this year's music director for the festival, and for those able to get down south, the whole schedule looks enticing.) Ah Young Hong and Kiera Duffy will be the two sopranos in the new work and Hersch himself will be on piano as part of an ensemble led by Muñoz. As you have probably guessed, I already have my ticket.

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