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Michael Hersch: 2010-11 season

For composer Michael Hersch, the summer brought two important world premieres: his monumental Third Symphony, whose “granitic force” (Financial Times) “impresse[d] with sheer sonic weight and intensity” (San Jose Mercury News) at the Cabrillo Festival, and his unaccompanied violin work, in the snowy margins, which Grammy Award-winner Peter Sheppard Skaevard debuted at the Dartington Festival in England.  It was Sheppard Skaevard’s repeat performance on September 23 at the British Museum that launched Hersch’s new season, in which the composer also looks forward to the release of his new CD, the second volume of his complete works for solo strings, due November 23 from Vanguard Classics; the world premiere of his Two Pieces for Cello and Piano, for which he will accompany veteran Hersch specialist Daniel Gaisford in Washington DC on November 7; and further performances in New York City and Nashville TN early in the new year.

This coming Sunday, November 7 sees Hersch’s first world premiere of the season, when he joins cellist Daniel Gaisford to perform his Two Pieces for Cello and Piano (2010) at the Phillips Collection in Washington DC, the nation’s first modern art museum.  Hailed as “America’s greatest unknown cellist” (Philadelphia Inquirer), Gaisford is the dedicatee of the new work; Hersch explains:

“While I have written several solo cello works for him, Daniel has asked over the years if I might write some new works especially for us to perform together.  Although it took almost ten years, these two pieces are the result and are dedicated to him.”

Gaisford also gives the Washington premiere of Hersch’s Sonata No. 1 for Unaccompanied Cello on the same program; after his world premiere performance of the work, the New York Times praised Hersch’s “extraordinarily communicative music,” and continued:

“Hersch’s music speaks for itself eloquently. … [The first] Sonata for Unaccompanied Cello [is] an arching 35-minute work that amply repays the considerable demands it makes on a cellist’s technique and interpretive imagination.  Daniel Gaisford’s spectacular performance was particularly gripping in the work’s extroverted finale.”

It was Gaisford’s recording of the demanding Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2 for Unaccompanied Cello that made up the critically prized first installment of Vanguard Classics’ three-disc survey of the composer’s music for solo string instruments.  Now, on November 23, the label releases the second volume – the wreckage of flowers – featuring Miranda Cuckson in Hersch’s complete violin works.  All world-premiere recordings, the new album comprises two works for unaccompanied violin – Five Fragments (2004) and Fourteen Pieces after texts of Primo Levi (2007) – and the wreckage of flowers: 21 pieces after poetry and prose of Czeslaw Milosz (2003), on which the violinist is joined by pianist Blair McMillen.  According to Cuckson, “a brilliant young performer who plays daunting contemporary music with insight, honesty, and temperament” (New York Times):

“Hersch’s music forms a unique world; one highly recognizable as his own and difficult to associate closely with stylistic movements.  He uses spare materials to grippingly visceral effect, packing the utmost expression into very simple bits of material.”

The new title is Vanguard’s fifth recording of Hersch’s works, a rare honor for a composer not yet 40.  His second disc for the label was selected by both the Washington Post and Newsday as one of the most important recordings of 2004-05, while his fourth – the first volume of the present series – was glowingly reviewed by the New York Times:

“The riveting piece [Sonata No. 1 for Unaccompanied Cello] [is] given a gripping performance by Daniel Gaisford. … The intensity and communicative power of this sonata, at times an anguished lament, is typical of much of Mr. Hersch’s work. … The reflective second movement, a showcase for Mr. Gaisford’s rich, penetrating tone and searing musicality, ebbs and flows into the harmonically rich final movement, with its virtuoso challenges and almost brutal intensity.  Mr. Gaisford… offers a mesmerizing performance of Mr. Hersch’s seven-movement Sonata No. 2.”

The third and final disc in the series, due for future release by Vanguard Classics, will comprise Hersch’s music for viola and double bass.

Cuckson and Gaisford continue to champion Hersch’s music into the new year.  On January 18, 2011, Cuckson gives a recital at New York’s Union Theological Seminary under the auspices of the Transit Circle Contemporary Music Series, of which she is the director; the US premiere of in the snowy margins closes the first half of her program, and Fourteen Pieces after texts of Primo Levi makes up the second.

On February 25, Gaisford joins the composer’s brother, horn player Jamie Hersch, to play Last Autumn for horn and cello, Books 1 & 2 (2008) at Nashville’s Vanderbilt UniversityLast Autumn is the second in a cycle of three large-scale chamber works begun by Hersch in 2001, the first being The Vanishing Pavilions (2005), an evening-length work for solo piano that is divided, like Last Autumn, into two separate books.  The composer comments: “Last Autumn…is the sister work to The Vanishing Pavilions.  Like The Vanishing Pavilions, it is intended to comprise an entire concert program. … Completed in 2008, the work is built around poetic fragments of the late W.G. Sebald.”  In fact, when Gaisford and Jamie Hersch, for whom the work was written, gave its world premiere in New York, the Philadelphia Inquirer judged:

“As great as [The Vanishing Pavilions] is, Last Autumn eclipses it.  In the airier, more distilled Autumn, whose emotional riches defy the harmonic limitations of the instruments[,] the music exploits the instruments in every imaginable way. … Idea and sound were inextricably one, and more viscerally exciting for it. … Long, vigorous applause indicated that Hersch’s more personal and demanding works are no longer appreciated by only a few.”

Towards the end of the season, in May, Gaisford joins Hersch again for a late-afternoon concert of his music in Havertown, PA. Details of all the concerts and the new CD are below, and further information can be found at Michael Hersch’s web site:

Michael Hersch: new CD release
Music for String Instruments, Volume II: the wreckage of flowers (music for violin)
Vanguard Classics (cat. No.: MC-105)
Release date: November 23, 2010
Miranda Cuckson, violin; Blair McMillen, piano
Fourteen Pieces for unaccompanied violin
the wreckage of flowers for violin and piano
Five Fragments for unaccompanied violin
Michael Hersch: upcoming performances, 2010-11
November 7, 2010; Washington DC
Daniel Gaisford, cello and Michael Hersch, piano
J.S. Bach: Suite No. 1 in G major
Michael Hersch: Sonata No. 1 for Unaccompanied Cello (Washington premiere)
Michael Hersch: Two Pieces for Cello and Piano (world premiere)
The Phillips Collection

January 18, 2011; New York City
Transit Circle Contemporary Music Series
Miranda Cuckson, violin
J.S. Bach: Partita No. 1 in B minor
Iannis Xenakis: Mikka “S”
Ralph Shapey: Four Etudes
J.S. Bach: Partita No. 1
Michael Hersch: in the snowy margins (U.S. premiere)
Michael Hersch: Fourteen Piece after texts of Primo Levi
Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York
February 25, 2011; Nashville TN
Daniel Gaisford, cello and Jamie Hersch, horn
Michael Hersch: Last Autumn for horn and cello, Books 1 & 2
Vanderbilt University
May 7, 2011: Havertown, PA
Daniel Gaisford, cello; Michael Hersch, piano
Michael Hersch: Two Pieces for Cello and Piano, Sonata No. 2 for unaccompanied cello, Suite from The Vanishing Pavilions
Studio of Christopher Cairns, 2130 Darby Road, Havertown, PA (4pm)

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© 21C Media Group, November 2010

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