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February 3, 2011

Peabody Symphony tackles daunting scores by Mahler, Hersch

In what must be among the most ambitious programs ever tackled at the Peabody Conservatory, the student orchestra dug into the thorny, emotionally complex, large-scale Symphony No. 2 by faculty member Michael Hersch and the thorny, emotionally complex, large-scale Symphony No. 5 by Gustav Mahler on Tuesday night.

One or the other would be a pretty tall order for a single concert; having both seemed like a bit of derring-do on the part of the players and conductor Hajime Teri Murai. But things turned out surprisingly well.

If the Peabody Symphony felt worn out by the experience, it didn't show much. The conservatory may have the heartiest pool of musicians on campus in years -- at least I don't recall symphonic performances at Peabody that boasted quite so much in the way of tonal consistency and depth, not to mention well-aimed fire power. On balance, slips of intonation or cohesiveness were minor.

I'm sure if there could have been a repeat or two of the program, things would really have been smoking onstage. And this was a program worth repeating, certainly worth being heard by more people.

Hersch is a startling talent. He writes music that contains

great complexity, but is remarkably lucid; music that is essentially abstract, yet positively neo-romantic in its expressive quality. The composer is so shy and soft-spoken that the amount of angst churning through his scores seems all the more remarkable. And it would be hard to get more angst-driven than his Symphony No. 2.

The dense harmonic blocks and mazes of percussive assaults seem to speak from a world of trouble, fear and doubt. But shards of light penetrate the music in ways that prove just as powerful. The superb orchestration ensures that each tormented peak and each moment of reflection registers clearly.

Murai's clear-cut conducting and the ensemble's committed response yielded an arresting account of this eventful work.

As he did in a 2003 Peabody concert, Murai offered a sturdy interpretation of Mahler's Fifth that balanced momentum with lyrical heat.

I again particularly admired the Viennese lilt he achieved in the Scherzo and the spacious shaping of the Adagietto. There were places in the first two movements when I would have preferred more subtlety of phrasing, tempo and dynamics, but the overall energy proved quite effective. The finale, too, had a terrific sweep.

At its best, the orchestra played with unity and tonal warmth; most of the solo contributions within the woodwind and brass sections hit the spot.

In a way, the darkness of the Hersch symphony provided an ideal lead-in to the funeral march that begins the Mahler score, making the eventual sunburst in the latter all the more cathartic.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:35 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes


Some of us still recall the Hersch piece commissioned to open the Music Center at Strathmore by the BSO nearly 6 years ago. Asked to write a celebratory piece, he wrote a piece about Iraqi prisons. No one liked it and the best that could be said for it was that it was short. I didn't understand the appeal of his music then, and I still don't understand it now.

Yes, that Strathmore commission was a major blunder, but more on the part of the BSO, I'd say. Hersch was never going to be the composer for a light, celebratory occasion; anyone who had actually listened to what he was writing should have known that. (Maybe he should have declined the commission, but what young composer is going to do that?) To my ears, Hersch's music can be awfully powerful, absorbing, surprising. I like that. It's also capable of being very affecting. I think that's why it attracted such firm advocates as Mariss Jansons. TIM.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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