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Composer Michael Hersch Premieres Two Works This Winter with BBC Symphony (Feb 14) and Camerata Bern (Feb 21), Releases Live Recording from Aldeburgh Festival

American composer Michael Hersch – “one of the most fertile musical minds to emerge in the U.S. over the past generation”(Financial Times) – looks forward to two world premieres this winter, followed by the spring release on the New Focus label of the dramatic cantata I hope we get a chance to visit soon, recorded live at the 2018 Aldeburgh Festival. On February 14, one of Hersch’s muses, soprano Ah Young Hong, joins the BBC Symphony for the world premiere of his dramatic song cycle the script of storms, composed to texts by Iraqi poet and painter Fawzi Karim. A week later, one of the many fruits of his season-long collaboration as composer-in-residence with Camerata Bern, of which violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja is Artistic Director, is the world premiere of the multimedia dramatic work AGATHA with Hong, Kopatchinskaja and clarinetist Reto Bieri as soloists (Feb 21). The Camerata Bern residency also sees a screening of the film version of Hersch’s monodrama On the Threshold of Winter, featuring Hong as the sole protagonist, and a season finale concert in which Kopatchinskaja performs his Violin Concerto, dedicated to her. The composer’s banner season also includes a production of On the Threshold of Winter directed and performed by Hong and presented by Cantata Profana at Brooklyn’s Irondale Center.

Iraqi poet and painter Fawzi Karim, whose poems are marked by what Hersch calls “particular and unexpected juxtapositions of quiet introspection and graphic brutality,” was both a friend and inspiration to the composer. In an essay published last year in the UK poetry journal PN Review, Hersch wrote:

“Karim’s world is a remarkable and disquieting place; a landscape of empathy, beauty and often unspeakable horror. … The work is without excess or a heavy hand, without surface-level regret or sentimentality. Karim was clear-eyed about the world in which he lived, and he did not shy away from its challenges and troubles. But precisely as a result of that clarity, he yearned for and held onto the good in others, when and wherever he found it.”

The world premiere of the script of storms, which uses fragments from nine of Karim’s poems as its basis, is led by regular Hersch collaborator Tito Muñoz, the Phoenix Symphony Music Director praised by the New York Times for his “sensitive and meticulous” leadership of the world premiere of On the Threshold of Winter. He conducts the BBC Symphony with Hong as soloist, and both conductor and soprano are making their BBC Symphony debuts with the performance (Feb 14).

AGATHA is a “psychodrama” scored for soprano, violin and clarinet soloists and ensemble and composed specifically for Hersch’s residency this season with Camerata Bern. The composer was drawn to the subject first by his wife’s love for the Sant’Agata dei Goti church in Rome, and later by her struggle with breast cancer. Agatha, who was tortured to death by the Roman prefect Quintinianus after rejecting his advances, is also the patron saint of breast cancer victims. The ironic juxtaposition of the beauty of the church with the harrowing story of the saint told pictorially in a frieze around the ceiling, and then with the physical and psychological disfigurement of breast cancer treatment, provided the impetus for Hersch’s work. The first three short sections serve as a prelude to the longer fourth, in which not only the soprano, Agatha, but also the violin and clarinet soloists assume speaking roles in the drama. A video featuring dancer Jennifer Florentino, directed by James Matthew Daniel, who also made the film version of On the Threshold of Winter, will accompany the live performance. A trailer for AGATHA can be seen here.

Cancer has been a recurring presence in Hersch’s life for some time, a misfortune which has found its way into much of his recent work. His two-act monodrama On the Threshold of Winter, “a work of great originality, daring, and disturbing power” (Baltimore Sun) receiving a production at Brooklyn’s Irondale Center this spring, is a case in point. The composer created his original libretto for On the Threshold of Winter by adapting The Bridge, the final poetry collection of Romanian author and Nobel Prize nominee Marin Sorescu (1936-96), who wrote it during the last five weeks of his unsuccessful battle with cancer. As Hersch explains, the special immediacy with which The Bridge affected him:

“My closest friend received a cancer diagnosis in her late 30s and died of the disease a few years later. The experience of witnessing what she went through is something far from resolved in me. The horror of the entire thing still haunts. Most unexpectedly, while she was in the midst of her fight I then received a cancer diagnosis myself, at age 36. For that period while I underwent my own surgeries, radiation, indignities …, the roles were reversed, and she was there for me. Ultimately, I was left cured to go on with my life and she was gone.”

This spring’s production of On the Threshold of Winter will be directed and performed by Ah Young Hong, hailed by the New York Times for her “soul-baring, courageous” performance as “the opera’s lone, blazing star,” and presented by Cantata Profana. A trailer for the production can be seen here.

The dramatic cantata I hope we get a chance to visit soon, scored for two sopranos and nine instrumentalists, is a sister-work to On the Threshold of Winter, and will be released on the New Focus label just as the opera is mounted in Brooklyn in April. Whereas the opera draws on Sorescu’s poetry, the cantata goes directly to the source of Hersch’s inspiration, drawing from the texts of his correspondence with his friend, Mary Harris O’Reilly, as she was struggling with the disease. Excerpts from the correspondence are combined with texts by Canadian-American writer Rebecca Elson, who succumbed to cancer at 39, and British poet Christopher Middleton, whose work has been a recurring source of inspiration for the composer. Recorded live at the co-commissioning Aldeburgh Festival in 2018, the work is performed by Hong, soprano Kiera Duffy, alto saxophonist Gary Louie, pianist Amy Yang, and members of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, with Muñoz conducting.

In June, Patricia Kopatchinskaja performs Hersch’s Violin Concerto on Camerata Bern’s season finale concert (June 28). Kopatchinskaja, the dedicatee of the concerto, has said of the work:

“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 … 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.”

In a special event following the concert, Hersch himself – a formidable pianist known for his “astonishing virtuosity” (Philadelphia Inquirer) – will perform both in duos with the violinist and as a soloist. A video interview with Kopatchinskaja further discussing Hersch’s music can be seen here.

High-resolution photos can be downloaded here.


Michael Hersch: Winter & Spring 2020

Feb 14
London, England
the script of storms: songs after texts of Fawzi Karim (world premiere)
BBC Symphony Orchestra / Tito Muñoz
With Ah Young Hong, soprano

Feb 21
Bern, Switzerland
Camerata Bern
AGATHA (world premiere)
With Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin; Reto Bieri, clarinet; Ah Young Hong, soprano 

Feb 23
Geneva, Switzerland
Camerata Bern
With Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin; Reto Bieri, clarinet; Ah Young Hong, soprano

Feb 24
Bern, Switzerland
REX Cinema
Screening of live opera film On the Threshold of Winter
Directed by James Matthew Daniel
Ah Young Hong, soprano
NUNC Ensemble, Miranda Cuckson, artistic director

April 16 & 18
Brooklyn, NY
Irondale Center
Cantata Profana
On the Threshold of Winter
Ah Young Hong, soprano and director
Video Design: Max Bowman

April TBC
RECORDING RELEASE: I hope we get a chance to visit soon
Live from the 2018 Aldeburgh Festival
released by arrangement with BBC Music
New Focus Records
Musicians of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra / Tito Muñoz
Ah Young Hong, Kiera Duffy, sopranos
Gary Louie, alto saxophone
Amy Yang, piano

June 28
Bern, Switzerland
Violin Concerto
Camerata Bern/Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin 

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© 21C Media Group, February 2020

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