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June Brings New York Premieres of Two New Chamber Works by Composer Michael Hersch

June brings the New York premieres of two important new chamber works by Michael Hersch, the composer hailed as “a natural musical genius who continues to surpass himself” (Washington Post). Soprano Ah Young Hong lends her “extraordinarily concentrated, caustically honest yet pure voice” (New York Times) to his expressionistic song cycle a breath upwards at Manhattan’s Saint Peter’s Church (June 10), and violinist Carolyn Huebl and pianist Mark Wait reprise their celebrated account of Zwischen Leben und Tod: twenty-two pieces after images by Peter Weiss in a full multimedia presentation at new Brooklyn performance space National Sawdust (June 28).

a breath upwards (Saint Peter’s Church, June 10)
A 30-minute, twelve-part song cycle for soprano, clarinet, horn and viola, a breath upwards is literary in inspiration, combining settings of texts drawn from Dante’s Purgatorio and Inferno with instrumental interludes evoking passages from related Cantos by Ezra Pound. The cycle received its world and Baltimore premieres earlier this spring. “Hersch stopped me in my tracks,” wrote David Patrick Stearns in the Philadelphia Inquirer. “This piece went inward with fine gradations of awe, disbelief and contemplation of the incomprehensible.” Pronouncing the piece “mesmerizing,” the Baltimore Sun elaborated:

“Hersch’s uncompromisingly complex style invariably delivers a fresh jolt. The intellectual brilliance involved is startling enough; the addition of expressive intensity can be almost overwhelming. … Something strong and vital emerged, … something that touched on the transitory nature of life, the way we are connected, in some way, to those who go before us.”

It was soprano Ah Young Hong – most recently heard in New York in 2014’s world premiere of Hersch’s acclaimed chamber opera, On the Threshold of Winter, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music – who anchored both performances, prompting the Baltimore Sun to marvel: “The soprano’s laser-beam tone and powerful concentration had a compelling effect; her hushed delivery at the end of the ninth song was especially riveting.” As in Philadelphia and Baltimore, Hong will be joined in New York by the composer’s brother, Jamie Hersch, on horn, now with Gleb Kanasevich on clarinet and Miranda Cuckson – one of Hersch’s most trusted collaborators – on viola.

Zwischen Leben und Tod (National Sawdust, June 28)
The most recent in a series of program-length works that Hersch has written over the past decade, Zwischen Leben und Tod (“Between Life and Death”) for violin and piano comprises 22 movements, each corresponding to a painting or drawing by Peter Weiss (1916-1982). Better known as a playwright and novelist, Weiss was also a remarkable visual artist and filmmaker. As the composer explains in an insightful essay, which features examples of the artist’s work:

“Weiss’s spectrum of color and motion, of proportion and spacing, struck me as particularly musical, and I found this both provocative and inspiring. … Weiss’s environments included both familiar and alien worlds that I wanted to capture directly in sound. In either case, I felt at home. For the first time, I felt compelled to engage directly with images through music.”

He adds:

Zwischen Leben und Tod … is my third work that has had a relationship with visual art; the others are Images From a Closed Ward (after etchings by Michael Mazur) and Black Untitled (after a painting of the same name by Willem de Kooning). Of the three pieces, Zwischen Leben und Tod is most closely intertwined with the artwork.”

When the 80-minute piece premiered in Nashville earlier this year, in a multimedia presentation with Weiss’s art projected on a large screen above the stage, the Nashville Scene marveled:

“Hersch’s music, for its part, captured the emotions of these works with uncanny accuracy. … The highlight of the concert, and Hersch’s most significant achievement, was the final piece, ‘Self-Portrait.’ Hersch composed a soul-searching musical meditation to complement the painting. Without question, the music perfectly matched the serious, contemplative expression seen in the artist’s face.”

As for Carolyn Huebl and Mark Wait, who look forward to reprising their performance at National Sawdust, the review observed:

“Huebl and Wait confronted this music head on, leaving none of the work’s darkly disturbing emotional stones unturned. … Hersch was absolutely merciless in the demands he made on the performers. Huebl and Wait were more than equal to these challenges, though, and they played every note with power, precision and emotional conviction.”

High-resolution photos can be downloaded here.


Michael Hersch: two New York premieres


June 10, 8pm
New York, NY
Saint Peter’s Church (Lexington Ave at 54th Street)
a breath upwards
Ah Young Hong, soprano
Miranda Cuckson, viola
Gleb Kanasevich, clarinet
Jamie Hersch, horn

June 28, 7pm
Brooklyn, NY
National Sawdust
Zwischen Leben und Tod: twenty-two pieces after images by Peter Weiss
Presented in full multimedia
Carolyn Huebl, violin
Mark Wait, piano

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© 21C Media Group, May 2016

Photo: Self Portrait Between Death and Sister (1935) by Peter Weiss

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