Is artistic freedom worth the price of artistic isolation?
The answer for Philadelphia composer Michael Hersch looks better when considered over the long term.
After early successes in the 1990s with expressionistic orchestral works performed under the likes of Mariss Jansons, Hersch has long gone against neo-tonal trends and in ways that have only intensified over the last five years.
For some, he's one of the few out there able and compelled to speak in unvarnished truth. And at 45, Hersch shows every sign of heading farther down a lonely road marked "art for art's sake." He writes important works without a commission - and would premiere them at his own expense if local organizations such as Network for New Music didn't step in.
Both his 2009 Symphony No. 3 and 2015 Violin Concerto begin catastrophically: The world is not getting any nicer, and as a socially aware artist, Hersch can't help being keenly tuned into that. Here is a live recording of the seventh movement of Symphony No. 3:
But the go-for-broke dissonance and machine-gun percussiveness of Symphony No. 3 is easier to parse than the nagging quietude and scorched-earth sound collages of his Violin Concerto and 22-movement violin-piano work titled Between Life and Death. That 2015 work was performed in Brooklyn last month in conjunction with projections of the haunted, phantasmagorical artwork of Peter Weiss (1916-82) that inspired each section - though what was heard was sometimes the provocative opposite of what was seen. Were that not challenging enough, Hersch purposefully eschews conventional beginnings, middles, and ends.
In preconcert comments to the audience in Brooklyn, he seemed doubtful when or whether Between Life and Death might be heard in its full form. Yet a Philadelphia performance is now in the works for November. The Hersch Festival at the New York City venue the Spectrum unfurls over three days, Sept. 7-11, including his 50-movement piano work, The Vanishing Pavilions. Here is Hersch performing a movement from The Vanishing Pavilions:
A Hersch festival anywhere was unthinkable 10 years ago. In February, he'll have a world premiere for Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, a piece titled End Stages that only has eight movements.
One imagines Hersch as something like the title character of Offenbach's Orphée aux enfers, who blithely writes hour-and-a-half concertos, leaving Eurydice vexed and beleaguered. In fact, he's more like George Crumb, who has lived in academia, writing wildly impractical works for percussion orchestras, knowing that music he believes in will find believers.
A relatively recent Hersch convert is Patricia Kopatchinskaya, one of the more individualistic violinistic personalities in Europe. In a recent BBC podcast, she described his music as "the essence of the essence . . . it's important to play this music."
She discovered him while surfing YouTube and commissioned the 2015 Violin Concerto. She told audiences at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra premiere, "Only rarely do you come across a piece written out of deep necessity . . . you might hate it, but you'll never forget it."
Had Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia audiences been so reassured years back, would they still have booed Hersch's Variations on a Theme of Hugo Wolf at its 2005 premiere? (With the concert available on download, Hersch sampled the booing and sent it to his friends. Yes, he has a sense of humor.)
Unlike some of the 1960s modernists, who seemed indifferent to public comprehension, Hersch very much cares whether you listen. When his pieces are inspired by artworks and/or poems, he makes sure words and images are as well-presented as the music. As a composer who goes places that others do not, he does want you to come along.
The Violin Concerto begins with a brief prelude of sorts, starting with an aforementioned chaos but with so many meticulously honed, disparate details as to feel like the more grotesque corners of the Hieronymus Bosch painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. The second movement has the dissonance of quiet desperation, building almost like an extended violin cadenza with splashes of intense instrumental color. The final movement has a fragment or two of simple melody, started by the soloists and picked up by the orchestra like some benevolent entity leading you into severe harmonic nightmares.
Do I love it? Do I understand it? Such things are incidental on the playing field here. The question is whether I responded to it. And that answer is an emphatic yes. But in my years of hearing his works, I haven't always wanted to join his journey. Early movements in Between Life and Death are so spare, so inward, there was too little stimulus for me to take anything in. Later movements have welcome inner friction, both within the music and alongside the allegorical Weiss paintings, populated by creatures reminiscent of George Grosz.
This and other recent works seem to mark a new phase of Hersch's output, for reasons seen best in Hersch's 2014 opera, On the Threshold of Winter, about death by cancer. With its relentlessly high vocal writing and single-character dramaturgy, there's no distance to be had from the world of this opera. Here is a trailer for a the 2014 Brooklyn Academy of Music debut of On the Threshold of Winter, with Hersch speaking about the piece:
By contrast, in The Vanishing Pavilions, his 2005 two-hour piano work inspired by poems of Christopher Middleton, whatever is happening on an expressive level arrives within an imposing musical edifice built with unconventional materials. If you don't like one aspect, focus on another.
Also, I can't discount where I first heard it, played by Hersch at St. Mark's Church. Notes exploded from the piano, but Hersch, who often looks like a soulful bank teller, didn't break a sweat. At intermission, he circulated in the audience, chatting as though nothing extraordinary had happened. So Hersch isn't some artist standing apart from the world with obscure musical experiments. He's firmly rooted in the real world - more than we are or want to be.
That's why it's art for art's sake. Few people are asking for this music, and yet it exists - a notion so counterrevolutionary I'm fascinated to know where it could lead.