Peabody alum composing a rapid success story

Assured but shy, intense yet embracing, Michael Hersch, 29, has won over New York with six of his scores performed since January.

Classical Music

April 29, 2001|By Tim Smith | By Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

NEW YORK - "The only thing a composer can strive for is to be unique," says Michael Hersch, who has been living those words for the better part of a decade now.

It would be hard to find a more distinctive, not to mention intriguing, musical force on the scene today. Although critics may not entirely agree on his talent - nothing unusual in that - audiences invariably are enthusiastic about Hersch.

Such was the case Wednesday at New York's Lincoln Center. There was a sustained and hearty ovation after the Peabody Symphony Orchestra played "Ashes of Memory," an angst-driven, 18-minute score by the 29-year-old composer, one of Peabody Conservatory's most successful alumni.

It's the kind of work - technically assured, emotionally direct, often comfortably tonal - that helps explain the increasingly widespread interest in this shy, soft-spoken young man with the unusually dark, penetrating eyes.

In New York, where every aspiring music creator and music maker needs exposure, six Hersch compositions have been performed just since January, including the world premiere of "Umbra" for strings, winds and percussion by the Brooklyn Philharmonic. Yet another Hersch work, a string octet, is due in the city in May.

"Ashes of Memory" actually got one and a half performances - the Pittsburgh Symphony, which commissioned the piece and premiered it in the orchestra's hometown last year, played one of the score's two movements last month in Carnegie Hall. The Peabody presentation turned out to be the first complete performance in New York.

`A natural talent'

Hersch, well known for his shyness, finds all this attention uncomfortable.

"I have been trying to pace everything carefully," says the Washington native, who got his master's degree from Peabody in 1997. "I am writing only one piece a year. But, by coincidence, there has been this convergence of performances in New York. I wish it would stop."

What bothers the composer most is that perceptions about him and his music are being formed on the basis of a few reviews and articles in New York.

"The number of people who actually attend the concerts is small," he says. "So people aren't listening to the music. They just see a name in print."

Chances are very good that many more concert-goers will eventually hear for themselves what Hersch is all about.

"He is a natural talent with uncanny musical ability," says Hajime Teri Murai, director of orchestral activities at Peabody and music director of the Peabody Symphony Orchestra. "Michael was meant to write music; it's innate.

"And he's in his early period. He's not as mature or innovative and progressive as he will be in five or 10 or 20 years. But if audiences are responding so strongly to his early works, I'm sure they will respond to his mature compositions as well."

Hersch takes a detached view of his creative output so far.

"I'm just getting over my student-y period," he says. "My catalog of works is actually getting smaller because I keep withdrawing pieces; I end up not happy with certain things. I'm just now starting to do things I think maybe will hold up - perhaps."

Again, such modesty is typical for Hersch. It extends to another of his gifts - he is an accomplished pianist, but hates to perform in public. The few recitals he has given are played in small rooms almost in the dark, "because I hate to be the center of attention."

But he doesn't mind sitting at the keyboard with just one listener present, as when he is being interviewed; he would much rather play something than talk about his music. On this occasion, in a classroom at Peabody, he offers to perform a 10-minute movement from his latest work, "Mistral," for solo piano. It sounds improvisatory, kinetic, tense - and, yes, unique.

New compositions are routinely described by how they resemble the styles of other composers. Hersch has been compared, among others, to Shostakovich and Mahler; "Ashes of Memory" understandably invites those comparisons. "Mistral" conjures up a host of 20th-century figures, but the similarities are, at most, fleeting. What comes through in the end is pure Hersch.

A late starter

And that means emotion. There is nothing academic in his notes, and, while he himself is reserved, his music communicates forcefully in a language that seems like a reinvention, a new translation for the 21st century, of romanticism.

It has been that way since he was 19, when he first discovered there was something inside him waiting for the right avenue to be unleashed.

Nineteen is not necessarily an old age for a composer to be starting out, but when you consider that Hersch had no interest at all in classical music until that age, his case becomes all the more remarkable.

His brother, principal horn player with the Singapore Symphony, gave him a videotape of the late Sir Georg Solti conducting Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Within a matter of weeks, Hersch was writing his own music.

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