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September 20, 2012

Peabody Institute features recent works by composer Michael Hersch

Michael Hersch writes music of astounding, even thrilling, complexity; music that can be hard to grasp, yet impossible to let go of; and music of stark, unsettling, seemingly implausible beauty.

There was an impressive demonstration of all these qualities in a concert Tuesday night at the Peabody Institute, where Hersh studied and now heads the composition department.

The long, meaty program focused on works written in the past two years, works that find the composer as uncompromisingly serious and reflective as ever.

The newest item, receiving its world premiere, was "of ages manifest," a riveting score for unaccompanied alto saxophone.

In seven movements, the piece exploits what seems to be every conceivable, or inconceivable, sonic property of the instrument.

The myriad sounds encompass breathy whispers from the threshold of audibility, as well as horn-like wails, with many a finely shaded gradation in between.

Melodic lines leap wildly one moment, center on long, slow crescendos the next (the latter starts to sound a little too like an etude in the fifth movement).

Aggressive, almost martial rhythms (the fourth movement) are balanced by episodes of mournful song (the sixth).

Some of the wildest movements seem to rush toward a cliff and emit one last, primal yell that is eventually answered by just two or three soft notes, like a faint echo, or a message trying to make its way from another galaxy.

Out of all of this emerges a riveting kind of sound-poem that the soloist, ...

Gary Louie, communicated with stunning technical brilliance and expressive power.

Miranda Cuckson brought incisive skills to a solo violin piece, "in the snowy margins," from 2010.

The extended crescendo idea is present in this work, too, along with vigorous, dissonant flurries that generate considerable tension. The closing movement achieves something of the poignant mood in the hurdy-gurdy song that ends Schubert's "Winterreise."

Hersch, an excellent pianist, performed his "Two Lullabies" (2011). This is unsettled music, atmospherically and harmonically, with many a struggle between tonal and atonal forces.

Things that go thump in the night, especially at the far reaches of the bass register, are balanced by hints of a comforting chorale; some pop music-style chords (at one point, I thought they seemed to be searching for John Lennon's "Imagine"); and what might be taken for the restless ghost of Chopin's A minor Prelude.

The Blair String Quartet, a finely matched ensemble, closed the evening with a taut, cohesive and absorbing performance of a 2010 score, "Images from a Closed Ward."

Inspired by drawings of mental hospital patients by the late Michael Mazur, the 13-movement piece reflects the composer's uncanny ability to open up a psychological realm, where the music seems to capture fears, dreams, suppressed desires, regrets.

The richness of ideas here is remarkable (only in the prolonged, agitated 11th movement does Hersch run out of creative steam); the variety of expressive techniques likewise impresses.

Throughout, harshness alternates with a tense lyricism. One of the most affecting passages is the penultimate movement, when gorgeous chords keep emerging, as if from a mist, to pass -- or collide -- in the night.

The eventful sonic journey includes a somber processional that forms the third movement and, to compelling effect, returns at the end, dissipating in quizzical fashion, yet remaining in the air long after.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:53 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Peabody Institute

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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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