The Sudden Pianist
Innova 859 CD+DVD
Michael Hersch: Suite from The Vanishing Pavilions (59:05)
Live in Concert
1. The Sudden Pianist: a film by Richard Anderson (29:11)
2. Michael Hersch: Live in Concert (61:03)
Long-established as a leading voice among composers of his generation, Michael Hersch is also one of the great pianists of our time. While always few, his public performances have become increasingly rare. Michael Hersch: Live in Concert documents Hersch’s first appearance as a pianist in New York City in over a decade.
Also included in this special CD/DVD package is an intimate documentary portrait, The Sudden Pianist, a film by Richard Anderson. The film focuses on Hersch’s history of performance and compositions for the piano, shedding light on this aspect of Hersch’s music-making with never before seen or heard footage of Hersch playing his own work: from his debut to the present day. There are also rare interviews throughout with Hersch. The film is a moving journey into the mind of one of America’s most singular artists.
Michael Hersch (b.1971)
Suite from The Vanishing Pavilions (2005/2011)
Soundtrack from the Live in Concert DVD
Michael Hersch, piano
Recorded Live on October 18, 2011 at Merkin Hall in New York City
Concert Presented by Nunc
Miranda Cuckson, Director
The Sudden Pianist
a film by Richard Anderson
Michael Hersch: Live in Concert
BEAUTY, TERROR, AND STILLNESS: THE VANISHING PAVILIONS SUITE
Upon hearing The Vanishing Pavilions Suite, it would be convenient to compare Michael Hersch to other composers of 20th-and 21st-century piano cycles (Messiaen, Sorabji, Finnissy), but this is a disservice to him and his work. Hersch is certainly worthy of joining the ranks of such esteemed composers, but simple comparisons diminish the originality and depth of Hersch’s music. For this is music of extremes: quiet and loud, high and low, dense and sparse. Hersch refuses to take the middle road, forcing the listener to confront a series of expectations that are thwarted. The Vanishing Pavilions Suite is never comfortable or settled. Even in the work’s darkest moment of stillness, there is an underlying tension seeking resolution. Every passage keeps pushing forward, each movement urges toward the next.
The Vanishing Pavilions was initially conceived in the autumn of 2001 when Hersch met poet Christopher Middleton (b. 1926) while they were both fellows at the American Academy in Berlin. Middleton’s work was an electrifying inspiration: “In much of his poetry I saw something of myself — especially in relation to the outside world (my hopes, fears, sense of beauty, terror, helplessness...) but conveyed in a manner (through words) which I was incapable of expressing; in my case requiring music.” Hersch collected several fragments of Middleton’s poetry and then began to compose responses to them. For musical completeness and structural cohesion, several “intermezzi” were composed and strategically interspersed throughout the piece.
The original composition, completed in 2005 and lasting two and a half hours, was premiered by the composer in Philadelphia the following year. After repeated requests for a smaller version of The Vanishing Pavilions, Hersch contemplated several possibilities for a distilled form before finally arriving at a viable solution. Instead of simply extrapolating a subset of movements, he recomposed some (occasionally with modified repetitions at other points in the Suite), and reordered all but the first and last movements. These revisions create a new set of relationships among the materials as well as an independent large-scale architecture. As Hersch says, the Suite “consequently lead[s] down paths unexplored in the original, while still sharing terrain.”
Some movements clearly word paint their accompanying texts (movement 2, “So the flashing knife will split/Memory down the middle …” sounds like a blade clefting a skull) while others are more abstract (movement 3, “Here the huge root spread/A willow hit by lightning, long/Before we came” perhaps might suggest lightning strikes with its stabbing chords but offers no further musical analog other than the feeling that we are surrounded by the imaginary landscape described). Though so much of the text is suggestive, Hersch seems to have selected passages that deny him an “easy image,” instead using the text as a departure point for deeper musical exploration. In this regard, The Vanishing Pavilions Suite is like the song cycles of Schubert and Schumann, where the music is often more illustrative of the emotional thrust of work than the words.
The subtext and imagery supplied by the accompanying texts provides interest and aesthetic insight, but they are not necessary to understand the work musically. The success of the Suite depends not only on the fashioning of independent, memorable musical miniatures, but also on the meaningful continuation, transformation, or cessation of harmony, register, texture, and dramatic momentum throughout the piece. Therefore, while each of these movements could stand alone, they coalesce into a more powerful whole when heard successively.
One consistent feature of the Suite is repetition. There is the aforementioned repetition of materials among movements that allows for recontextualization and structural connections, but there is also sequential repetition in musical passages. Typically, this type of progression is used to build texture or add tension. While the Suite certainly uses repetition in this way, Hersch also creates another more subtle and curious effect: that of something progressing slowly, deliberately, but also at times being frustrated, either by interpolations of disparate material or by the temporary inability to move forward. This yields a deeper connection with some of the texts (“Thousands of heaped stones absorbed the twilight” or “… pushing through slow centuries:/The space is branching out, blown back.”) and a sense of timelessness — sometimes bleak — that pervades the entire cycle.
There is also a physicality to the music. The sounds that Hersch conjures from the piano are tactile, often weighty; they loom and haunt. In no small measure is this a result of Hersch’s muscular, commanding performance. There is the tangible presence of the composer moving through the music’s emotional worlds not just as pilot and navigator but also as sympathetic companion.
Ultimately, the most appealing aspect of the Vanishing Pavilions Suite is its expression of Hersch’s humanity. One senses the composer deeply embedded in this work, unafraid to starkly bear his emotions. In our increasingly self-satisfied culture, obsessed with irony and cool, it is rare to find an artwork of such unflinching sincerity. While the music is highly refined, the emotional rawness found in this recording may make some listeners uncomfortable. But with any significant artistic achievement there is uneasiness, even danger. The simultaneously exhilarating and profound music here, and Hersch’s performance of it, more than reward the risk.
© 2013 Jason Eckardt
Widely considered “one of the most fertile musical minds to emerge in the U.S. over the past generation,” (The Financial Times of London), Michael Hersch continues to compose music of tremendous power and invention. His work has been conducted in the U.S. and abroad by conductors including Mariss Jansons, Alan Gilbert, Yuri Temirkanov, Robert Spano, Marin Alsop, Giancarlo Guerrero, Carlos Kalmar, and James DePriest, and has been performed by the major orchestras of Cleveland, Saint Louis, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Seattle, Baltimore, Dallas, Cincinnati, and Oregon; domestic and international festivals including the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, Chicago’s Grant Park, Germany’s Schloss Neuhardenberg and Italy’s Romaeuropa Festivals; and ensembles including the String Soloists of the Berlin Philharmonic, the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, The Network for New Music, and the Blair String Quartet, among others.
He has written for such soloists as Garrick Ohlsson, Thomas Hampson, Midori, Boris
Pergamenschikow, Shai Wosner, Walter Boeykens, Gary Louie, Michael Sachs, Daniel Gaisford and Miranda Cuckson. His solo and chamber works have appeared on programs throughout the world - from the Chamber Society of Lincoln Center in the U.S. and the Dartington New Music Festival in the U.K., to the Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo, Japan.
Also regarded among today’s most formidable pianists, Mr. Hersch has appeared on the Van Cliburn Foundation’s Modern at the Modern Series, the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., Cleveland’s Reinberger Hall at Severance Hall, the Festival of Contemporary Music Nuova Consonanza, the Warhol Museum, and in New York City’s 92nd St. Y - Tisch Center for the Performing Arts, Merkin Concert Hall, and Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, among others.
His music increasingly recorded, Vanguard Classics is in the midst of an acclaimed survey of Mr. Hersch’s complete music for solo strings. This project comes several years after the landmark 2007 boxed-set release of Mr. Hersch’s, The Vanishing Pavilions, with the composer at the keyboard. Mr. Hersch’s second disc for the label, featuring the composer performing his own works in addition to those of Feldman, Rihm and Josquin, was selected by The Washington Post and New York Newsday as among the most important recordings of 2004-05. That disc followed-up his debut recording, which features Mr. Hersch performing his Two Pieces for Piano and Recordatio, with additional performances of Mr. Hersch’s chamber works for strings by the String Soloists of the Berlin Philharmonic. In 2006, a recording of Mr. Hersch’s early orchestral works, including his Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2, was released on the Naxos American Classics series with Marin Alsop conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.
Michael Hersch first came to international attention at age twenty-five, when he was awarded First Prize in the Concordia American Composers Awards. The award resulted in a performance of his Elegy, conducted by Marin Alsop in New York’s Alice Tully Hall in early 1997. Later that year he became one of the youngest recipients ever of a Guggenheim Fellowship in Composition. Mr. Hersch has also been the recipient of the Rome Prize, the Berlin Prize, and both the Charles Ives Scholarship and Goddard Lieberson Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts & Letters. He currently serves as chairman of the Department of Composition at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University.
Suite From The Vanishing Pavilions by Michael Hersch
Audio recorded by Richard Anderson
Mastered by Ed Tetreault
Filmed and recorded live on October 18, 2011 at Merkin Concert Hall
Videography: Richard Anderson and Matthew Yake
Film Editing: Richard Anderson
Special Thanks to Merkin Hall at Kaufman Center
The Sudden Pianist
Directed, edited and produced by Richard Anderson
All music published by 21C Music Publishing, Inc./Michael Hersch Music, New York
innova is supported by an endowment from the McKnight Foundation.
Philip Blackburn, director, design
Chris Campbell, operations manager
Steve McPherson, publicist