Michael Hersch's first opera an unconventional take on life and death

Peabody faculty member calls his new work his 'most personal'

  • Composer and teacher Michael Hersch plays a selection from the opening song of his opera in his studio at the Peabody Institute.
Composer and teacher Michael Hersch plays a selection from… (Al Drago, Baltimore Sun )
June 20, 2014|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

Michael Hersch composes music of sobering complexity -- lots of jagged melodic lines, thorny harmonies, quick-shifting rhythms. But even at its densest, his intense work communicates in a way that can make a listener feel privy to Hersch's innermost thoughts.

The composer, who studied at the Peabody Institute in the 1990s and has been on the composition faculty there since 2006, is about to reveal even more of himself this week when his first work for the stage premieres at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

"On the Threshold of Winter," an opera with a single character, addresses mortality in an unusually intimate way.

"This is the most personal thing I have written," Hersch, 42, said.

The composer adapted a libretto from "The Bridge," a collection of poems by Marin Sorescu, written in the last five weeks before that acclaimed Romanian writer's death from cancer. The opening lines of Hersch's work capture a universal sentiment:

"Why am I the one who must enter this hospital/While that man passing by at this very moment/Can proceed on his way?"

It's a question that resonates with particular poignancy for the composer.

"When I was a child, I was living with my grandfather, who was dying of cancer," said Hersch. "He was in his mid-50s. That made a profound impression on an 8-year-old. After that, I associated cancer with older people and entropy. It didn't occur to me that the end point for someone my age would be death."

Hersch learned otherwise about eight years ago, when one of his closest friends — "She was young and beautiful and vibrant," the composer said — was diagnosed with cancer.

"I tried to be there for her," he said, "but in the midst of this, in 2007, I received a cancer diagnosis myself. That doubled the surrealism of the entire thing. Suddenly, the roles were reversed, and she tried to be there for me. About a year later, right when I was coming into the clear, she got worse and, in early 2009, she died. It's still shocking to me."

The loss of his friend and his own brush with severe illness (he remains cancer-free) had a side effect on Hersch's career.

He had already been thinking that the usual path for a composer — working from commission to commission — might not be best for him. Now, any qualms about changing course "were obliterated," he said.

"I realized that to write the best music I can I have to do projects I feel I need to do, to write completely on my own terms," Hersch said. "The sacrifice is no income and no guarantee of a performance."

Before his philosophical change of heart about when and why to compose, Hersch was kept busy fulfilling commissions. They came from the likes of the Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Dallas and Saint Louis symphony orchestras, along with soloists, including eminent baritone Thomas Hampson, and chamber ensembles.

The composer has generated steady buzz for the past decade as more musicians championed his work.

Extra praise invariably resulted when Hersch, a formidable pianist, gave recitals of his own piano music, including an astonishing, 145-minute long piece called "The Vanishing Pavilions." He now holds few public performances, leaving more time to focus on composing.

(The keyboard side of Hersch's career is the subject of a Richard Anderson's fascinating documentary "The Sudden Pianist," seen at several film festivals since its release last year.)

The Virginia-born Hersch, who lives in the Philadelphia area with his wife and daughter and commutes to Baltimore during Peabody's academic year, is likely to get renewed attention with the premiere of "On the Threshold of Winter."

"I spent 20 years considering writing something for the stage, even though no one was asking," the composer said. "It always struck me that the texts I considered were fine without me. I felt it just has to be the right set of circumstances."

Hersch did not expect tragedy to be part of those circumstances. But in 2010, in the wake of his friend's death, he came upon "The Bridge" and felt such a strong connection to Sorescu's verses that he knew he had to do something musical with it.

"While reading it, I realized that everything I had just seen was all right there," Hersch said. "It has been described as a 'death bed diary.' I think of it almost like newspaper dispatches. It's poetry, but it's more journalistic, not a diary meant to be private."

Vivid imagery abounds: "Devils have entered me …/Hordes that kick me with unclean hooves and poke me inside with sharp horns"; "A spider's thread hangs from the ceiling/Directly over my bed./…Look, I'm being sent a ladder to the sky..."

In the last poem, the terminal patient recalls pet dogs, who, when their time came, retreated under a shed: "You'd take them food, water…/They would raise their eyes toward you…/They would close them once again/They could not even wag their tail once to thank you."

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