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Michael Hersch’s Profoundly Personal New Cantata Debuts at Ojai, Berkeley, and Aldeburgh, Capping Season of Premieres

A natural musical genius who continues to surpass himself” (Washington Post), Michael Hersch concludes a landmark season with a succession of high-profile premieres. Spring sees the New York premiere of his Violin Concerto by Miranda Cuckson (April 20) and the Boston premiere of his evening-length violin and piano duo, Zwischen Leben und Tod, in what marks the city’s first presentation of his music (May 14). Next, summer brings the world and European premieres of I Hope We Get A Chance to Visit Soon, a dramatic cantata in which the composer confronts the death from cancer of a close friend. Starring sopranos Kiera Duffy and Ah Young Hong with Tito Muñoz leading members of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, the first performances of this profoundly personal work take place at California’s Ojai Music Festival (June 8), where Hersch is this year’s featured composer, and in dedicated programs of his music at Berkeley’s Cal Performances (June 15) and England’s Aldeburgh Festival (June 21). At all three festivals, Hersch – also an accomplished pianist known for his “astonishing virtuosity” (Philadelphia Inquirer) – performs selections from The Vanishing Pavilions, a work the New York Times calls “an extraordinary musical experience and a pianistic masterpiece.”

Violin Concerto: New York premiere

Composed in 2015, Hersch’s Violin Concerto offers a “dissonance of quiet desperation, building almost like an extended violin cadenza with splashes of intense instrumental color” (Philadelphia Inquirer). Its New York premiere will be given in the Lex54 Concerts series at St. Peter’s Church by new-music sinfonietta Ensemble Échappé, with Miranda Cuckson as soloist. One of the foremost exponents of Hersch’s music, Cuckson has performed most of his violin compositions, recording some of them for Vanguard Classics, and is the dedicatee of his recent piece the weather and landscape are on our side. As the New York Times realized after hearing her play his work: “Ms. Cuckson was in her element here. It would be hard to imagine this music played more vividly.”

Zwischen Leben und Tod: Boston premiere

Zwischen Leben und Tod: twenty-two pieces after images by Peter Weiss (2013) is a 90-minute work comprising 22 movements, each of which corresponds to a painting or drawing by Weiss, the German-born polymath best known for his plays Marat/Sade and The Investigation. “Hersch’s music … captured the emotions of these works with uncanny accuracy,” according to Nashville Scene, while the Philadelphia Inquirer found the piece “trenchantsearing … personal and inward, even by Hersch’s uncompromising standards.” Next month, Zwischen Leben und Tod receives its first Boston performance from the “fearlessly virtuosic” Ecce Ensemble (WBUR) at the city’s Athenæum, where the composer will join the artists for a pre-concert reception and talk.

New commission: I Hope We Get A Chance to Visit Soon (2018)

As the New Yorker notes, “Hersch, now in his second decade as one of the most prominent composers in the country, writes masterly modernist music of implacable seriousness.New York magazine adds: “Hersch is so sincere in his darkness, and so sophisticated in his expressivity, that he can make the morbid magical.”

There is a dark and personal story behind I Hope We Get A Chance to Visit Soon, which was co-commissioned by the Ojai Music Festival, Cal Performances Berkeley, the Aldeburgh Festival, and PN Review, the British poetry magazine where Hersch is the inaugural artist-in-residence. A dramatic cantata for two sopranos and nine instrumentalists, it is the second major work in which he addresses the tragic loss of one of his closest friends, Mary Harris O’Reilly, and his ordeal in witnessing her death from cancer while battling the disease himself. He explains:

“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.”

Hersch first drew on these experiences in his harrowing monodrama, On the Threshold of Winter (2012). “A work of great originality, daring, and disturbing power” (Baltimore Sun), this prompted the New York Times to observe:

“Mr. Hersch’s music, for all its dark and fragile beauty, offers neither comfort nor catharsis. … [He] has given himself the space to burrow past anger and incomprehension in search of an art fired by empathy and compassion.”

I Hope We Get A Chance to Visit Soon revisits the same traumatic events, this time taking as its inspiration letters and emails that the composer exchanged with O’Reilly during her final illness. And there is more: in a cruel twist, Hersch’s wife, Karen, has now also been diagnosed with cancer and is currently undergoing treatment. This too has informed and shaped the new work, which combines excerpts from the O’Reilly correspondence with texts by Canadian-American writer Rebecca Elson and British poet Christopher Middleton to create an unsparing and heartfelt dramatic narrative.

Premieres and more at Ojai Music Festival, Cal Performances, and Aldeburgh Festival

All three first performances of I Hope We Get A Chance to Visit Soon will be undertaken by the same ensemble. This reunites conductor Tito Muñoz, whose “sensitive and meticulous” (New York Times) leadership anchored On the Threshold of Winter’s world and New York premieres, with soprano Ah Young Hong, consistently praised for her “soul-baring, courageous” (New York Times) accounts of its single singing role. They will be joined by Kiera Duffy, a soprano of “penetrating insight and luminosity” (New York Times); virtuoso alto saxophonist Gary Louie, who is another of Hersch’s most trusted collaborators; pianist Amy Yang, “a magnificent artist and poet” (New York Concert Review); and members of the celebrated, award-winning Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

The cantata’s world premiere performance forms the centerpiece of Hersch’s residency at the Ojai Music Festival, where he serves as this summer’s featured composer. Hersch was selected for the position by this year’s Music Director Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who has said of Hersch’s work,

“Among contemporary composers, one of the most urgent and compelling voices is Michael Hersch. … There is no superficial beauty or decoration, and no compromises – everything is in the right place, crafted as if with a scalpel. I don’t know of any music of my generation that touches me so much and leaves me speechless, and is also without any contradiction.”

The dedicatee of Hersch’s Violin Concerto, Kopatchinskaja gives its West Coast premiere at Ojai alongside the West Coast premiere of Dies Irae, a staged event incorporating music ranging from Gregorian chant to contemporary works by composers including George Crumb, Galina Ustvolskaya, and Hersch himself. And in a dawn recital, the composer-pianist performs selections from his own 150-minute tour de force for solo piano, The Vanishing Pavilions (2005), of which the National Review writes:

“It is ferocious, desperate, manic; titanic, daunting, world-containing; visionary, apocalyptic, inexorable. You sometimes want to look away from it; it can be terrible to contemplate. And yet you still heed it. … Michael Hersch has something to say, and he bears listening to.”

Hersch and the ensemble revisit both I Hope We Get A Chance to Visit Soon and the excerpts from The Vanishing Pavilions at Cal Performances, alongside movements from of ages manifest (2010), his formidable composition for unaccompanied alto saxophone. This will be performed by its dedicatee, Gary Louie, who premiered the piece “with stunning technical brilliance and expressive power” (Baltimore Sun).

To complete the season, Hersch and the ensemble travel to England’s Aldeburgh Festival, which will reprise this entire program. Showcasing both the European premiere of I Hope We Get A Chance to Visit Soon and the UK premiere of the movements from of ages manifest, the concert will be recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3. Aldeburgh also presents the European premiere of the weather and landscape are on our side, highlighting a solo violin recital by Michael Barenboim.

High-resolution photos can be downloaded here.


Michael Hersch: upcoming engagements

April 20
New York, NY
Lex54 concerts at Saint Peter’s Church
Violin Concerto (New York premiere)
Miranda Cuckson, violin
Ensemble Échappé / Jeffrey Milarsky

May 14
Boston, MA
Zwischen Leben und Tod (Boston premiere)
Ecce Ensemble 

June 8 & 9
Ojai, CA
Ojai Music Festival
Featured Composer: Michael Hersch

June 8 at 8am
Selections from The Vanishing Pavilions
   Michael Hersch, piano

June 8 at 9pm
I Hope We Get A Chance to Visit Soon (world premiere of new Ojai Music Festival, Aldeburgh Music Festival, PN Review, and Cal Performances co-commission)
Ah Young Hong and Kiera Duffy, sopranos
Amy Yang, piano
Gary Louie, alto saxophone
Members of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra / Tito Muñoz

June 9 at 9pm
Violin Concerto (west coast premiere)
Dies Irae (includes music by Michael Hersch; west coast premiere)
Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin
Anthony Romaniuk, piano and harpsichord
JACK Quartet
Mahler Chamber Orchestra / Tito Muñoz

June 15
Berkeley, CA
Cal Performances; Ojai at Berkeley
“The Music of Michael Hersch”
of ages manifest I and VII, for unaccompanied alto saxophone
Gary Louie, alto saxophone
I Hope We Get A Chance to Visit Soon
   Ah Young Hong and Kiera Duffy, sopranos
Amy Yang, piano
Gary Louie, alto saxophone
Members of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra / Tito Muñoz
Selections from The Vanishing Pavilions
   Michael Hersch, piano

June 18
Snape Maltings, UK
Aldeburgh Festival
the weather and landscape are on our side: eleven fragments after texts of Bruno Schulz
for unaccompanied violin (European premiere)
Michael Barenboim, violin 

June 21
Snape Maltings, UK
Aldeburgh Festival; Ojai at Aldeburgh
“Michael Hersch and Mahler Chamber Orchestra”
of ages manifest I and VII, for unaccompanied alto saxophone (UK premiere)
Gary Louie, alto saxophone
Selections from The Vanishing Pavilions
   Michael Hersch, piano
I Hope We Get A Chance to Visit Soon (European premiere)
Ah Young Hong and Kiera Duffy, sopranos
Amy Yang, piano
Gary Louie, alto saxophone
Members of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra / Tito Muñoz


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© 21C Media Group, April 2018

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