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November 1, 2011

Guest blogger reviews recording of works by Peabody composer Michael Hersch

Because of a theater gig, I will not be able to attend what promises to be a major event of the fall season -- a performance of "the wreckage of flowers" by Michael Hersch, presented by the Evolution Contemporary Music Series Tuesday night at An die Musik. I am a great admirer of Hersch, a Peabody Conservatory faculty member who creates works of startling complexity, sincerity and communicative richness. "the wreckage of flowers" is a notable example. Guest blogger Logan K. Young reviews a recent recording that includes this piece:  

By Logan K. Young

Born in Washington, based in Baltimore, composer Michael Hersch is indeed a local marvel. In fact, given his myriad early successes, increasingly high-profile commissions and prodigious keyboard skills, I’d argue he’s the Beltway’s own Thomas Adès. No, that’s not hyperbole; Hersch really is that unique a voice, that solid a musician.

Only a few months over 40, he’s already on his fifth record for Vanguard Classics -- no small feat for a composer with regular office hours at Peabody, too.

This newest release collects three of Hersch's most refined works yet: the intimate “Five Fragments” and “Fourteen Pieces After Texts of Primo Levi” (both for unaccompanied violin), as well as the startlingly beautiful “the wreckage of flowers: 21 pieces after poetry and prose of Czesław Milosz.”

Brilliantly rendered here by new music specialists Miranda Cuckson on violin and Blair McMillen at the piano, “the wreckage of flowers” finds Hersch in a particularly concentrated mood. None of the movements ...

breaks the three-minute mark, but this brevity begets both soul and wit.

There’s an economy of means, compositionally, that’s implied whenever an artist works in miniature, but Hersch has always been able to speak volumes with Spartan wares. Having mastered the single, over-arching gesture long ago, neither formal rigor nor aesthetic bite is lost to duration.

The late Czesław Milosz was a Polish Nobel laureate who defected to France in 1951. Apropos, his most famous work, "The Captive Mind," is a study of how intellectuals behave under a repressive regime. Working only with violin and piano here, it’s hard not to imagine Hersch feeling somewhat stymied, himself, while writing. After all, he’s made quite the name for himself thanks to his large orchestral works.

Listen, though, to Movement XX (subtitled, after Milosz, “Farther, under the arch of ancient ruins, you see a few tiny walking figures...”). When the piano finally enters, make no mistake, it’s a deliberate, even frightening ripieno. That Hersch can make a duo sound like a full band is a testament to his scoring here. If we’re to extrapolate from Milosz’s text, those tiny walking figures in the distance are now breathing down our necks:

Writing on Hersch’s focus in the album’s liners, Cuckson the violinist notes, “It can at times be almost unbearably intense.” So honed is Hersch’s compositional acumen, by condensing things down to just a few pregnant minutes per movement, “the wreckage of flowers” ends up feeling like a piece twice its length. But that’s hardly a criticism, I’d contend. It’s simply the work of a truly captive mind.



Posted by Tim Smith at 9:02 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

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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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