Michael Hersch: end stages, Violin Concerto

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Virtuoso violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, for whom Michael Hersch's Violin Concerto was composed, wrote recently of the piece that it "is an open wound, there is no other way to say it." She continued, the work "is so convincing ... moves me so deeply, makes me speechless, tolerates neither doubt nor objection. It is like a mountain one can't ignore ... everything is crystal clear, there is no decoration, no superficial beauty, no compromises. Everything is exactly in place, has found its perfect form." A follow up to his haunting Images from a Closed Ward, New Focus releases Hersch's Violin Concerto, performed by Kopatchinskaja with the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), and end stages in a performance by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. With both pieces, Hersch reinforces his reputation as a composer of gripping music, unafraid to tackle through sound the most vulnerable and difficult corners of the human psyche.

Audio

Michael Hersch writes unflinching music that resolutely steers the performer and listener alike towards the most intense, raw, and often uncomfortable corners of musical expression and lived experience. This release of two of his recent works for chamber orchestra, end stages for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and his Violin Concerto, written for and performed here by the virtuoso Patricia Kopatchinskaja with the International Contemporary Ensemble and conductor Tito Muñoz, reaffirms Hersch’s reputation as a composer of brutally honest music, but one who always retains a humanist core in his work. In his personal life, Hersch has had many unfortunate run-ins with cancer, including his own diagnoses, and the fragility of life is omnipresent in his music, in overt thematic ways, as in end stages, or in expressively suggestive ways, as in the cathartic abandon in the solo part in the Violin Concerto. The concerto opens with towering blocks of dissonant sound, painting a sonic portrait of a hostile environment where peril lies around every turn. The soloist enters quickly, articulating and connecting these pillars of sound with frenzied embellishments. The relationship between soloist and ensemble is sometimes adversarial, as with many pieces in the genre, but more often, all the players seem to be navigating the same hostile unseen forces. The second movement and third movements remain largely introspective, as energy comes in waves before retreating back to the bleak landscape of the opening. Subverting the expectation of a lively conclusion to the concerto, Hersch delves even deeper into despairing territory in the fourth movement, a dark postlude. Often inspired by and in collaboration with visual artists, Hersch partnered with Kevin Tuttle in the composition of end stages. Tuttle's drawings of human bodies, often within the context of illness and terminal disease, frame end stages' powerful engagement with the realities of the final days of human life. The movements are compressed, with focused, dense material and an economy of expression, suggesting a realization that there is no time for wasted words. The sixth movement is the longest and most expressively expansive, with shimmering swells passed through the ensemble evoking brief moments of light peaking through the despair, an echo of Mahlerian existential struggle, minus the heroic impulse.

-D. Lippel/M. Hersch

Edited and Produced by Jacob Greenberg and Ryan Streber

Violin Concerto recorded at Oktaven Audio by Ryan Streber, engineer

End Stages recorded at Mechanics Hall, Worcester, MA

Recorded and engineered by Joseph C. Chilorio

Liner notes: Aaron Grad
CD Design and Layout: Jessica Slaven                       

Violin Concerto

Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin Tito Muñoz, conductor

International Contemporary Ensemble

  • Alice Teyssier, flute
  • James Austin Smith, oboe
  • Campbell MacDonald, clarinet
  • Ben Fingland, bass clarinet
  • Rebekah Heller, bassoon
  • Gareth Flowers, trumpet
  • David Byrd-Marrow, horn
  • Jacob Greenberg, piano
  • Josh Modney, violin
  • Jennifer Curtis, violin
  • Kallie Ciechomski, viola
  • Michael Nicolas, cello
  • Brian Ellingsen, bass

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

  • Bart Feller, flute
  • Susan Palma Nidel, flute
  • Matthew Dine, oboe
  • Roni Gal-Ed, oboe
  • Shari Ho man, clarinet
  • Alan Kay, clarinet
  • Brad Balliett, bassoon
  • Shelley Monroe Huang, bassoon
  • Eric Reed, horn
  • John David Smith, horn
  • Carl Albach, trumpet
  • Louis Hanzlik, trumpet
  • Maya Gunji, percussion
  • Rebecca Anderson, violin
  • Ronnie Bauch, violin
  • Emily Bruskin, violin
  • Luosha Fang, violin
  • Laura Frautschi, violin
  • Kobi Malkin, violin
  • Grace Park, violin
  • Todd Phillips, violin
  • Richard Rood, violin
  • Miho Saegusa, violin
  • Jeremías Sergiani-Velázquez, violin
  • Christof Huebner, viola
  • Dana Kelley, viola
  • Daniel Panner, viola
  • Nardo Poy, viola
  • Eric Bartlett, cello
  • Melissa Meell, cello
  • Jonathan Spitz, cello
  • James Wilson, cello
  • Gregg August, double bass
  • Jordan Frazier, double bass

                   

Patricia Kopatchinskaja

Violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s versatility shows itself in her diverse repertoire, ranging from baroque and classical often played on gut strings, to new commissions and re-interpretations of modern masterworks. Kopatchinskaja’s 2017/18 season commences with the world premiere of her new project Dies Irae at the Lucerne Festival where she will be ‘artiste étoile’. Dies Irae is her second staged programme following the success of Bye Bye Beethoven with Mahler Chamber Orchestra in 2016, and uses the theme from the Latin Requiem Mass as a starting point for her new concept featuring music from Gregorian Chant and Early Baroque to Giacinto Scelsi and Galina Ustwolskaja. The North American premiere will take place at the Ojai Festival in June 2018 where Ms. Kopatchinskaja will be Music Director. György Ligeti’s Violin Concerto is again a feature of Kopatchinskaja’s season – she will perform it with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra at the Enescu Festival in Bucharest under Rafael Payare, Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI, and Aurora Orchestra under Nicholas Collon as part of the Southbank Centre’s Ligeti weekend where she will also perform the Horn Trio with Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Marie-Luise Neunecker. The Stravinsky Violin Concerto will also be a prominent work which she will perform with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Alain Altinoglu in London, on tour around Europe, with Teodor Currentzis and the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich and with Gustavo Gimeno and the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra.

Last season’s highlights included Kopatchinskaja as Artist in Residence at four major European venues and festivals: at the Berlin Konzerthaus, the Lucerne Festival, London’s Wigmore Hall and the Kissinger Sommer Festival. She also embarked on two major European tours; with Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg under Gustavo Gimeno and with Wiener Symphoniker and Musica Aeterna both under the baton of Teodor Currentzis. She performed the Ligeti Violin Concerto with Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker, Filharmonica della Scala under Andrés Orozco-Estrada, and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Jukka-Pekka Saraste. She also made her debut with the Gothenburg Symphony and Peter Eötvös performing his Violin Concerto DoReMi. Continuing her regular collaboration with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, she appeared with them in London and New York under Vladimir Jurowski.

Chamber music is immensely important to Kopatchinskaja and she performs regularly with artists such as Markus Hinterhäuser, Polina Leschenko, Anthony Romaniuk and Jay Campbell appearing at such leading venues as the Berlin Konzerthaus, London’s Wigmore Hall, Vienna Konzerthaus and Concertgebouw Amsterdam. She is also an Artistic Partner with The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and performs with the ensemble regularly, both in Saint Paul and internationally. They undertook a major European tour together in November 2016, to coincide with the release of a new CD recording of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. In 2017/18 she will partner with cellist Jay Campbell in an eclectic programme at New York City’s Armory in October, and for a series of recitals around Europe with pianist Polina Leschenko including London’s Wigmore Hall, Berlin’s Boulez Saal and the Vienna Konzerthaus.

A prolific recording artist, the last few seasons have seen a number of major releases; an album of Kancheli’s music with Gidon Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica, a disc of duos entitled TAKE TWO on Alpha Classics, a recording of Schumann’s Violin Concerto and Fantasy with WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln under Heinz Holliger for Audite, and Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with Teodor Currentzis and Musica Aeterna on the Sony label. Kopatchinskaja’s release for Naïve Classique featuring concerti by Bartók, Ligeti and Peter Eötvös won Gramophone’s Recording of the Year Award in 2013, an ECHO Klassik Award and a 2014 Grammy nomination. Her latest release Death and the Maiden, for Alpha with The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra has received great critical acclaim.

https://patriciakopatchinskaja.com/

Tito Muñoz

Praised for his versatility, technical clarity, and keen musical insight, Tito Muñoz is internationally recognized as one of the most gifted conductors on the podium today. Now in his fourth season as Music Director of the Phoenix Symphony, Mr. Muñoz previously served as Music Director of the Opéra National de Lorraine and the Orchestre symphonique et lyrique de Nancy in France. Prior appointments include Assistant Conductor positions with the Cleveland Orchestra, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra and the Aspen Music Festival. Mr. Muñoz has appeared with many of the most prominent orchestras in North America, including those of Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Indianapolis, and Milwaukee, as well as the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and the National Symphony Orchestra. Mr. Muñoz also maintains a strong international conducting presence, including recent engagements with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, SWR Sinfonieorchester, Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken, Orchestre Philharmonique de Marseille, Sao Paolo State Symphony, Lausanne Chamber Orchestra, Danish National Chamber Orchestra, Luxembourg Philharmonic, Orchestre National de Lorraine, Opéra de Rennes, Auckland Philharmonia, and Sydney Symphony.

As a proponent of new music, Mr. Muñoz champions the composers of our time through expanded programming, commissions, premieres, and recordings. He has conducted important premieres of works by Dai Fujikura, Michael Hersch, Christopher Cerrone and many others. During his tenure as Music Director of the Opéra National de Lorraine, Mr. Muñoz led the critically-acclaimed staged premiere of Gerald Barry’s opera The Importance of Being Earnest. A frequent advocate of the music of Michael Hersch, Mr. Muñoz led the world premiere of Hersch’s monodrama On the Threshold of Winter at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2014, followed by the premiere of his Violin Concerto with Patricia Kopatchinskaja and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in 2015. In June 2018, he will again collaborate with Kopatchinskaja and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, performing Hersch’s music at the Ojai and Aldeburgh Festivals.

Mr. Muñoz’s relationship with the Cleveland Orchestra since his tenure as Assistant Conductor has been consistently critically-acclaimed, most notably in 2012 when he was engaged to replace the late Pierre Boulez for subscription performances. Mr. Muñoz led joint performances with the Joffrey Ballet and the Cleveland Orchestra in the summer of 2009, marking the first collaboration between these two organizations in three decades. This successful partnership led to further performances in the summer of 2010 as well as an invitation to tour with the Joffrey Ballet in the 2010-11 season. In the 2012-13 season, he conducted the Cleveland Orchestra’s first complete performances of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, a program he repeated in 2014-15, and, in summer 2013, led the orchestra’s first staged performances of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in the reconstructed original choreography of Vaslav Nijinsky, both with the Joffrey Ballet.

http://titomunoz.com/

International Contemporary Ensemble

Called “America’s foremost new music group” by The New Yorker, The International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) is an artist collective that is transforming the way music is created and experienced. As performer, curator, and educator, ICE explores how new music intersects with communities across the world. The ensemble’s 35 members are featured as soloists, chamber musicians, commissioners, and collaborators with the foremost musical artists of our time. Works by emerging composers have anchored ICE’s programming since its founding in 2001, and the group’s recordings and digital platforms highlight the many voices that weave music’s present. A recipient of the American Music Center’s Trailblazer Award and the Chamber Music America/ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming, ICE was also named the 2014 Musical America Ensemble of the Year. The group currently serves as artists-in-residence at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts’ Mostly Mozart Festival, and previously led a five-year residency at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. ICE was featured at the Ojai Music Festival from 2015 to 2017, and at recent festivals abroad such as gmem-CNCM-marseille and Vértice at Cultura UNAM, Mexico City. Other performance stages have included the Park Avenue Armory, The Stone, ice floes at Greenland’s Diskotek Sessions, and boats on the Amazon River.

New initiatives include OpenICE, made possible with lead funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which offers free concerts and related programming wherever ICE performs, and enables a working process with composers to unfold in public settings. DigitICE, a free online library of over 350 streaming videos, catalogues the ensemble’s performances. ICE's First Page program is a commissioning consortium that fosters close collaborations between performers, composers, and listeners as new music is developed. EntICE, a side-by-side education program, places ICE musicians within youth orchestras as they premiere new commissioned works together; inaugural EntICE partners include Youth Orchestra Los Angeles and The People's Music School in Chicago. Summer activities include Ensemble Evolution at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, in which young professionals perform with ICE and attend workshops on topics from interpretation to concert production. Yamaha Artist Services New York is the exclusive piano provider for ICE.

http://iceorg.org

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

Committed to innovation and artistic excellence, Orpheus is considered among the finest chamber ensembles in the world. Orpheus was founded in 1972 by a group of like-minded young musicians determined to combine the intimacy and warmth of a chamber ensemble with the richness of an orchestra. Orpheus performs without a conductor, rotating musical leadership roles for each work, and striving to perform diverse repertoire through collaboration and open dialogue. The ensemble has commissioned and premiered more than 48 original works. Orpheus’s recordings include the Grammy Award discs among over 70 other recordings for DG, Sony Classical, EMI Classics, BMG/RCA Red Seal, Decca, and others, including its own label, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra Records. Orpheus presents an annual concert series in New York City featuring performances at Carnegie Hall and the 92nd Street Y. The orchestra also tours extensively to major national and international venues.

http://orpheusnyc.org/

Michael Hersch

His work described by The New York Times as "viscerally gripping and emotionally transformative music ... claustrophobic and exhilarating at once, with moments of sublime beauty nestled inside thickets of dark virtuosity,” composer Michael Hersch is widely regarded as among today's most gifted artists. Recent and upcoming premieres include his Violin Concerto, with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Avanti Festival in Helsinki, and the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland; the New York City premiere of Zwischen Leben und Tod, at the newly established National Sawdust, and new productions in Chicago (Ensemble Dal Niente) and Salt Lake City (NOVA Chamber Music Series) of his monodrama, On the Threshold of Winter. The two-act work premiered in 2014 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Of the premiere The New York Times noted: “Death casts a long shadow over the recent work of Mr. Hersch … But in On the Threshold of Winter Mr. Hersch has given himself the space to burrow past anger and incomprehension in search of an art fired by empathy and compassion." The Baltimore Sun called the piece "a work of great originality, daring, and disturbing power." Over the past several years, Hersch has also written new works for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Ensemble Klang, the Alban Berg Ensemble Wien, and the Library of Congress. Other notable recent events include European performances by the Kreutzer Quartet of Images From a Closed Ward in the U.K. and Sweden, a recording of the work by the acclaimed FLUX Quartet, and the premiere of Of Sorrow Born: Seven Elegies, a work for solo violin commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, premiered at the orchestra’s Biennial. Current projects include a major co-commission by the Ojai Music Festival, the Aldeburgh Festival, Cal Performances Berkeley, and PNReview, and an upcoming residency with the Camerata Bern in Switzerland in 2019/20. In recent years, Hersch has worked closely with Patricia Kopatchinskaja, the violinist commissioning both his Violin Concerto, which premiered in 2015, and his chamber work ... das Rückgrat berstend, which premiered at the Park Avenue Armory in 2017. Hersch's solo and chamber works have appeared on programs around the globe - from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall in the U.S. to Germany’s Schloss Neuhardenberg Festival in Brandenberg and the Philharmonie in Berlin; from the U.K.’s Dartington New Music Festival and British Museum, Italy’s Romaeuropa and Nuova Consonanza Festivals, as well as performances in Japan and Singapore.

Notable past performances include Night Pieces, commissioned and premiered by the Cleveland Orchestra, and a song cycle for baritone and piano, Domicilium, premiered by Thomas Hampson and Wolfgang Rieger on San Francisco Performances (commissioned by Mr. Hampson and the ASCAP Kingsford Commissions for Art Song). Hersch’s second piano concerto, along the ravines, was given performances with the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra with pianist Shai Wosner, and as part of the George Enescu International Festival in Romania (Timisoara and Bucharest) with pianist Matei Varga. Mr. Hersch's Symphony No. 3 was premiered by Marin Alsop and the Cabrillo Contemporary Music Festival Orchestra, a festival commission, and his A Forest of Attics, commissioned for the Network for New Music's 25th anniversary season, was selected as one of the year’s most important classical music events by The Philadelphia Inquirer. The paper said of the work, “A Forest of Attics threw a Molotov cocktail into the concert: Everything before it paled in comparison … Hersch has written some towering works in recent years; this is yet another.”

Michael Hersch 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. 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, the Goddard Lieberson Fellowship and Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts & Letters, and the President's Frontier Award from the Johns Hopkins University, among other honors.

Also a gifted pianist, Mr. Hersch has appeared around the world including appearances at the Festival Dag in de Branding in the Netherlands, the Warhol Museum, the Romaeuropa Festival, the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., Cleveland's Reinberger Chamber Hall, the Festival of Contemporary Music Nuova Consonanza, the Network for New Music Concert Series, the Left Bank Concert Society, Festa Europea della Musica, St. Louis' Sheldon Concert Hall, and in New York City at Merkin Concert Hall, the 92nd St. Y - Tisch Center for the Performing Arts, and Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, among others. Mr. Hersch currently serves as chair of the composition faculty at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, MD.

https://www.michaelhersch.com/

Reviews

Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review

To my mind Michael Hersch has become one of the leading luminaries in High Modernism today. He convinces us that there is plenty of stylistic room at the top for the extension of the tradition into living times--and that he is charting a major foray into the zone with every new work. I am not alone in thinking that. If we needed further indication it has arrived decisively and happily in the major new disk that is upon us, a premier recording of end stages violin concerto (New Focus Recordings FCR 208). The 2015 Violin Concerto spotlights Patricia Kopatchinskaja as the solo violinist with the International Contemporary Ensemble in the capable hands of Tito Munoz. End Stages (2018) gets the attention of the Orpheus Chamber Ensemble. Both are essential; the final result shows an enlightened pairing.

What the two works do is widen our appreciation of the orchestral/concerted Hersch. Both works relate to one another with a seriality that is pleasing. Do both works have an expressive extremity that reaches out to a potentially menacing hugeness to call attention to the human presence in the universe? I hear that, even if perhaps the feeling is more Rorschachian than objective, if we really can relate feeling reactions absolutely to musical tones. And is there a total objectivity available to us in these matters? Not as far as I know. Not on this level.

The Concerto is meant to commemorate the life and passing of a friend. It was commissioned by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and violinist Kopatchinskaja. Some somber lines from two Thomas Hardy poems serve as epigrams. A sculpture by Christopher Cairns, "Stanchion", adds a kind of correlate to the music from the second movement onwards. Heroically bleak is perhaps the two words that most occur to me as I hear the work repeatedly. There is at the thickest points of the work a special strings against unstrings dichotomy to the music, with the solo part and the string section forming natural alliances and having the more to say while winds join in most appropriately at any rate but not much on their own so much as in tandem. Patricia takes the part with a muscular poeticism that drives forward the shape of the music and sets the pace that the orchestral groupings emulate and further admirably.

End Stages (2016) truly seems to continue the musical discourse set in motion by the concerto. It is a sparser, quieter meta-monstration on death and Hersch seems to lighten the burden of grief just a little to allow the sunlight to shine through the louvers of the wooden screen just enough for us to reclaim the boundaries and borders that mark us off from the "not we." If that seems whimsical to you, listen carefully to the music and you may feel it too, but it does not matter as much as the feelings that this music truly "means." The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra take over the musical chairs for this seven part briefer work.There is nothing lightweight or incidental about this music, but then Hersch happily seems incapable of meaninglessness.

If the music on this program is more bracing than joyful keep in mind that we do not remember, say, the story of Oedipus because it is chipper and warm-hearted! Music like literature need not be grinning at all times from ear-to-ear to involve us in serious openings onto a supra-human terrain. That Hersch can do this with increasing strikingness is a reason to rejoice anyway. We need as a species to do more than talk of walls and witch hunts! Lest we forget what makes us special, get this new volume and listen with care. Yes, there IS the new in New Music. This is one place to find it and hold on to it.

Like the generally unsung Alan Pettersson (1911-1980) there is a certain amount of biographical pain and anguish in Hersch's music. And so perhaps is there a personally quixotically macabre strain in Alfred Hitchcock. All artists put something of themselves in their work, no? We come to recognize it and so we come to understand something of the meaning of it all as we do.

Very strongly recommended for all Modernists who want to know that the journey continues.

-Grego Applegate Edwards, 8.3.2018, Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review

Records International

Hersch seems drawn to dark subject-matter, especially in the extended chamber works of his recent output, and much of what we said about his epic, bleak duo, Last Autumn (on writings by W.G. Sebald) (05Q093), applies here. The Images are the disturbing etchings in the 'Closed Ward' series from the 1960s by Michael Mazur (1935-2009), depicting patients in an insane asylum. These despairing, faceless figures, contorted and slumped into subhuman positions like living figures drawn from Hieronymus Bosch or Francis Bacon, evoke thirteen brief movements ranging from the desperately sad to the utterly desolate, with one episode of manic fury. The movements contrast in style, texture, degree of dissonance and depth of despair, though all share a basically slow pulse and a heavy tread of unison voicing, with relatively little contrapuntal writing - even the raging eleventh movement with its furiously clashing lines is underpinned by the consistent drumbeat of the unvarying oppression of the frantic soul's surroundings. Among the abrasive harmonies moments of lucidity occur, with the distant, detached calm of pre-tonal Renaissance music, as though the interior monologue of the distorted mind, forever unreachable, clings to fragmentary memories of beauty. The booklet reproduces a number of Mazur's pictures, matched with historical photographs, the briefest perusal of which shows the aptness of Hersch's interpretation of this gloomy, harrowing subject-matter.

Best of Bandcamp Contemporary Classical August 2018

The dynamic violin virtuoso Patricia Kopatchinskaja—who served as the music director of the prestigious Ojai Music Festival in 2018—was riveted by a piece of music composed by Michael Hersch that she stumbled across online several years go. Attracted by the intense power of the work, she tracked down and commissioned him to write Violin Concerto, which she plays here with trademark bravado, deftly supported by the International Contemporary Ensemble. The harrowing four-movement work took inspiration from a pair of poems by Thomas Hardy and a sculpture by Christopher Cairns, but it was written in response to the death of a friend, and there’s little doubt the music’s rigor and darkness were derived from that sense of loss. From the start, Kopatchinskaja relies on her technical brilliance, unleashing scratch tones and bruising intervals, but as the dissonance builds, her lines become more concentrated and tightly coiled. The piece slows, pitted by occasional rhythmic spasms, with the violin digging into a single pitch during the length of the third movement before fading into somnambulance, awash in weird harmonics. End Stages, commissioned and performed by Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, is no less brooding. Once again, the work was composed with death in mind, but inspired by a set of drawings by occasional collaborator Kevin Tuttle; the work moves toward acceptance of mortality with muted serenity.

-Peter Margasak, 8.28.2018, Best of Bandcamp Contemporary Classical August 2018

Gramophone

Michael Hersch’s Violin Concerto (2015) immediately hurls us into a wrenching scene. Trumpet and horn yelp a distressed fanfare as the remaining body of the 13-piece orchestra lurches forwards in convulsive dotted rhythms. A minute or so later the solo violin enters with slashing semitone double-stops, as if struggling to make its raspy voice heard.

This concerto, like much of Hersch’s recent work, can be interpreted as a musical battle of life and death – the composer is a cancer survivor and lost a close friend to the disease in 2009 – although I’d say it’s closer to unsparing reportage than emotional confessional. There are brief passages of fragile lyricism and an occasional glimmer of bittersweet nostalgia, but little respite, as even these quickly evaporate or splinter into violent spasm. Listen, for instance, at 2'12" in the second movement, where the solo violin slowly rocks back and forth (in D major/minor), wheezing like an ancient squeezebox; or to the yearning melody that unexpectedly blossoms at 2'56" in the third movement.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who commissioned the concerto, aptly describes it as ‘brutal and vulnerable at the same time’, and her performance conveys that dichotomy with ferocious commitment, aided with equal fearlessness by the International Contemporary Ensemble under Tito Muñoz. The music’s intense physicality and bleak atmosphere make for gripping, if harrowing, listening. What draws me to listen again and again is Hersch’s ability to communicate desperation that somehow never plummets into despair.

Hersch seems to find inspiration in the work of artists with a similar sensibility; the Violin Concerto is connected to a sculpture by Christopher Cairns, for instance, and has verses by Thomas Hardy as its epigraph. With end stages (2016), a set of seven aphoristic miniatures, the stimulus was a series of drawings by artist Kevin Tuttle (handsomely reproduced in the CD booklet). The first four are quite terse and suggest noirish cinematic fragments. Starting with the fifth, however, the emotions become more richly articulated – or, as Aaron Grad puts it in his perceptive booklet notes, the pieces ‘move progressively inward, rather than forward’. Ideally, I think the latter movements would benefit from a rawer sound than the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra give us here, but the performance’s cumulative power is considerable nonetheless.

-Andrew Farach-Colton, 10.2018, Gramophone

New York Music Daily/Lucid Culture

One of the most sepulchral and chilling albums of recent years is the Blair String Quartet’s 2014 recording of Michael Hersch’s Images From a Closed Ward. That one was inspired by Michael Mazur sketches made inside a Rhode Island mental asylum in the early 1960s. The latest recording of Hersch’s characteristically harrowing work is even more so, evoking the fitful last gasps and lingering pain of the final stages of terminal illness. Hersch’s Violin Concerto, performed by soloist Patricia Kopatchinskaja with International Contemporary Ensemble is paired with his end stages suite, played by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and streaming at New Focus Recordings.

The twisted march that introduces the concerto – arranged with an emphasis on strings rather than a full orchestra – kicks in with a savage downward slash from Kopatchinskaja. Within the first minute, the message is clear: the horror is going to be relentless. The brooding string quartets of Per Norgard are an antecedent. Kopatchinskaja’s role is less traditional soloist than member of the ensemble who gets the most shivery, terror-stricken lines and cruelly demanding cadenzas.

A sense of desperation pervades this piece, foreshadowing the suite to follow, Evil faces from every corner of the sonic picture peek out and then slash at each other, the horns rising over a cruel, emphatic low note from the piano. Astringent microtones linger side by side, a macabre march anchoring the shrieks overhead – not that anyone would want to be anchored in this skin-peeling acidity.

That’s the first movement. In the second, similar shrieks burst from accordion-like textures throughout as much welcome calm as there is, the occasional piano accent piercing the veil. The third is a vast, spacious, defeated tableau punctuated by funereal piano, a horrified fragment from the strings eventually leading to a horrified quasi-march with a frantic couple of duels amid the string section, then a series of cruelly sarcastic faux-fanfares. The stillness in the fourth remains constant and sadistically icy: Hersch’s orchestration is every bit as inventive as his music is disturbing.

end stages, which is also a microtonal work, begins with an austere mist punctuated by a sudden evocation of a scream or a brief moment of neoromantic clarity. The rest of the movements, many of them barely a minute or two long, shift from surreal, cinematic, conversational exchanges, to macabre dirges.

Bells and stark string horror permeate the third movement. There could be a death in a sudden pained cadenza here, and also in the grim codas of the fourth and fifth, puncturing their lingering, ghastly suspense. A sadistic parody of churchbells and grey-sky Shostakovian ambience sit side by side with long shrieking motives and every foreshadowing device ever invented, as these tortured voices stare down the end. This is the best piece of new orchestral music since Julia Wolfe’s Cruel Sister album, which was rated the best record of 2011 here. Look for this one on the best albums of 2018 page here at the end of the year.

-New York Music Daily/Lucid Culture, 10.5.18

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