Michael Hersch: I hope we get a chance to visit soon

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New Focus releases Michael Hersch's I hope we get a chance to visit soon, the long-awaited companion piece to his critically acclaimed monodrama, On the Threshold of Winter. Scored for two sopranos and ensemble, the work continues Hersch's exploration of several themes he has engaged with often in recent years, cancer and loss.

Audio

# Audio Title/Composer(s) Time
Total Time 61:16

I hope we get a chance to visit soon

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Composer Michael Hersch tackles difficult subject matter unflinchingly, delving deep inside the nature of pain, anguish, and suffering in works that frequently explore illness and mortality. I hope we get a chance to visit soon is no exception. The companion piece to his 2012 monodrama, On the Threshold of Winter, which set texts by Romanian poet Marin Sorescu who succumbed to cancer, I hope we get a chance to visit soon engages with the loss of Hersch’s close friend Mary Harris O’Reilly to the disease. Hersch’s own bout with cancer is always lurking in the subtext of these powerfully topical works, manifest in his chosen sonic world that primarily sets texts from correspondence between O'Reilly and Hersch, some of which were exchanged while both were in treatment. These texts are often set in opposition to fragments from the poetry of Rebecca Elson. The work is scored for two soprano soloists and chamber ensemble. Hersch divides the texts between the words of O'Reilly and Elson, establishing contrasting roles and perspectives on the situation that the protagonist finds herself in. That the formal release of this recording comes in the midst of a global pandemic will not be lost on anyone, and only intensifies the contemporary experience of this powerful work.

Hersch organizes the piece into sixteen total sections, the first of which is the longest and functions like a prelude or overture to the fifteen sections that follow. This extensive section sets texts by poet Christopher Middleton both in English as well as in German translation, establishing a duality between the two sopranos which will become a primary component for the text settings of O’Reilly and Elson moving forward. This section is in fact an adaptation and expansion of a prior work of Hersch’s for voice, violin, and cello, ...das Rückgrat berstend, which is included on Hersch’s release, “Carrion-Miles to Purgatory,” New Focus FCR229. The ensemble grows out of a cloud of sound at the opening, ushering in the voices as they overlap each other, uttering fragments of ominous English and German phrases. Though Middleton’s texts have not overtly laid out the central conflict of the work, Hersch’s taut sonorities signal the weight and import of the expressive world we have entered into.

It is in the second section that we are introduced to O’Reilly’s words directly. Hersch’s setting captures the paralysis that often accompanies such news, as haunting chords containing microtonal internal intervals in the strings wash over the listener like a slow moving sense of dread. The short, violent third section is undoubtedly expressive of one’s emotional reaction to the news once it has sunk in, free of the burden of keeping a positive face with a newly diagnosed friend. The subsequent sections alternate between gripping outbursts and quasi-recitative style text delivery, as Hersch brings the listener along a series of horrifying revelations about O’Reilly’s disintegrating health.

The sixth section opens with quiet material in the piano, enveloped by colors similar to the opening of section two, as the voice enters for an aria that is occasionally interrupted by brusque punctuations from the ensemble. Sections seven through nine are characterized by drastic character shifts, from the searing wildness of the opening of sections seven and nine, to the disembodied textures in section ten, as Hersch holds the intensity of the unfolding narrative by alternating between often brutal extremes.

We hear a return of the piano figure from section six in the twelfth section, an extended instrumental passage with fleshed out commentary from strings and winds. When the voices do finally enter in this section, they do so first in monotone and then in a whisper, devoid of the color and vibrancy of previous material.

The last four sections of the work chronicle the devastating effects of the late stage of the disease. When we reach the final sixteenth section, Hersch references the opening of section two with somber spoken text accompanied by whispered poetry, as if already heard from the beyond. We only hear the instruments again one minute before the close of the work, providing a forbidding pad for O’Reilly’s heartbreaking final lines, “so that’s what’s new with me...it’s kind of hard not to be frightened.”

Like many of his works, Michael Hersch’s I hope we get a chance to visit soon is a cathartic journey into difficult emotional territory. But Hersch chooses his subject matter and powerful, jarring musical approach not for shock value, but instead to grab our collective proverbial collars and wake us out of complacency, to remind us of the fragility of health and life. In a historical moment like the one we find ourselves in, the complacency has perhaps already been stripped away, increasingly replaced by an unfortunate resonance with the painful realities which he so deftly expresses in music.

- Dan Lippel

  • Live recording from the 2018 Aldeburgh Music Festival Recorded by the BBC
  • Released by arrangement with BBC Music
  • Poetry by Christopher Middleton used with permission from Carcanet Press
  • Poetry by Rebecca Elson used with permission from Carcanet Press
  • Correspondence of Mary Harris O'Reilly used with permission from Michael Hersch
  • Cover photo of Michael Hersch by Sam Oberter
  • Cover photo of Mary Harris O'Reilly: self-portrait
  • CD design by ycArt design studio
  • Cover/back cover design by Tim Holt

I hope we get a chance to visit soon composed by Michael Hersch, published by Project Schott New York (ASCAP)

Originally aired on the BBC Radio 3 programme Hear and Now: Michael Hersch at Aldeburgh

Dedicated Album Page on Michael Hersch's website: michaelhersch.com/ihopewegetachancetovisitsoon

Michael Hersch

A composer of “uncompromising brilliance” (The Washington Post) whose work has been 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,” Michael Hersch is widely considered among the most gifted composers of his generation. Recent events and premieres include his Violin Concerto at the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland and the Avanti Festival in Helsinki; new productions of his monodrama, On the Threshold of Winter, in Chicago, Salt Lake City, and Washington D.C., and his I hope we get a chance to visit soon at the Ojai and Aldeburgh Festivals, where Mr. Hersch was a 2018 featured composer. Recent premieres include his 11-hour chamber cycle, sew me into a shroud of leaves, a work which occupied the composer for fifteen years, at the 2019 Wien Modern Festival. 2020/21 will see the premiere of his new opera, Poppaea, in Vienna and Basel as part of the Wien Modern Festival in a co-production with ZeitRäume Basel and Gare du Nord Basel / Netzwerk zur Entwicklung formatübergreifende Musiktheaterformen. During the 2019/20 season, Mr. Hersch has been named Composer-in-Residence with the Camerata Bern. In February 2020, his recent work Agatha saw performances in both Bern and Geneva.

Over the past several years, Hersch has written new works for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Ensemble Klang, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, 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, a work for solo violin commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, premiered at the orchestra’s Biennial in 2014.

Recently Hersch has worked closely with violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, the violinist commissioning both his Violin Concerto, which premiered in 2015, and his chamber work ... das Rückgrat berstend, which premiered at New York City’s Park Avenue Armory during the autumn of 2017. She recently recorded the concerto with the International Contemporary Ensemble (I.C.E.), and the duo with cellist Jay Campbell. Most recently, Kopatchinskaja performed one of the solo roles in the world premiere of Agatha in Bern.

Notable past performances include Night Pieces, commissioned and premiered by the Cleveland Orchestra, and a song cycle for baritone and piano, Domicilium, commissioned and premiered by Thomas Hampson and Wolfgang Rieger on San Francisco Performances. Hersch’s second piano concerto, along the ravines, was given performances with the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, and as part of the George Enescu International Festival in Romania. Mr. Hersch’s end stages was commissioned and premiered by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, his Zwischen Leben und Tod recently received it’s European premiere, and 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.”

Also a pianist, noted for his “astounding facility at the keyboard” (International Piano), Mr. Hersch has appeared around the world including appearances at the Ojai Festival, Aldeburgh Festival, 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.

Born in Washington D.C. in 1971, 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.

https://www.michaelhersch.com/

Reviews

5

Records International

As has by now been well established Hersch occupies himself with aspects of the darkest side of human experience in his music. Anyone who believes that the function of art should be solely to be superficially beautiful, uplifting and consoling will presumably find this repugnant, and will avoid it; those who acknowledge that the abyss is there, has a purpose, and is inescapable, and are suspicious, if not dismissive, of Day-Glo utopias may find that the presence of an eloquent Virgil to guide them through the pit may provide at the very least some catharsis, if not actual reconciliation to the inevitable. It is to these that Hersch addresses himself. There are few words that strike fear into the human heart like "cancer", and Hersch, a cancer survivor himself who has lost people to the disease, has addressed the subject repeatedly in his music. This work was conceived as a companion piece to his opera-monodrama On the Threshold of Winter (2012) (still apparently and inexplicably unrecorded), which set poems from the collection The Bridge by the Romanian poet Marin Sorescu written in the final months before he died from cancer in 1996. I hope we get a chance to visit soon addresses the loss of a close friend, Mary Harris O’Reilly, to cancer. The principal texts of the work are drawn from O’Reilly’s correspondence with Hersch and fragments of poetry by Rebecca Elson (1960-1999) who also died of cancer. In Hersch's words, “Elson’s poetry seems to articulate in direct terms what much of O’Reilly’s thoughts refuse to openly acknowledge.” The two singers present the texts in dispassionate recitation, or almost screamed in passionate terror, sometimes in succession, sometimes in parallel but independently, and increasingly as the arc of the work descends, reaching out for one another in sudden, incidental consonance. Characteristically, the ensemble's music is often jagged, harsh and confrontational, but with sudden oases of resigned, or exhausted, tranquility; in the words of one critic "... claustrophobic and exhilarating at once, with moments of sublime beauty nestled inside thickets of dark virtuosity". Texts included. Ah Young Hong, Kiera Duffy (sopranos), Ensemble (string quartet, double bass, clarinet/bass clarinet, bassoon, alto sax, piano) conducted by Tito Muñoz.

— n/a, 6.02.2020

5

textura

Don't be fooled by the seeming innocuousness of the title I hope we get a chance to visit soon: this sixteen-part elegy by Michael Hersch (b. 1971) is both unsparing and gut-wrenching. Cancer is the scaffolding on which it's constructed, specifically the cancer that claimed the life of his close friend Mary O'Reilly, a historian who succumbed to it in 2009 at forty-five. Adding to the work's impact is that in 2007 Hersch himself contracted the disease and, at the very time he was working on the piece, his wife Karen Klaiber Hersch was diagnosed with breast cancer (both are now cancer-free). By the composer's own admission, the passing of O'Reilly and the feeling of irresolution it left in its wake makes I hope we get a chance to visit soon a creation of extreme personal resonance.

In weaving excerpts of e-mail correspondence between O'Reilly and Hersch into its libretto, the seventy-minute piece allows the material to resonate powerfully for those outside the immediate circle. Her words possess an unsentimental matter-of-factness that doesn't wholly conceal the fear, anxiety, and dread she presumably was experiencing behind the brave front. The sharing of personal details such as “I had a rather scary conversation with my oncologist” are punctuated by her repeated request “Please drop me a line when you have a chance,” and her heartbreaking words at work's end (from the last note Hersch received from her before her death)—“So that's what's new with me … it's kind of hard not to be frightened”—take on an even greater pathos in light of the outcome.

The work is exceptionally well-crafted and powerful in execution. On this live recording from the 2018 Aldeburgh Music Festival, all of O'Reilly's words are spoken and sung by Ah Young Hong; text fragments by poet Rebecca Elson (1960-1999), dead from non-Hodgkins lymphoma at thirty-nine, are delivered by Kiera Duffy. The contrast between the texts is itself fascinating: while O'Reilly's is the more conversational, Elson's confronts directly what the other's more alludes to. Before their words appear, the opening part, an extended prelude of sorts, presents texts by British poet Christopher Middleton (1926-2015) set in the original English and in German translation, a move that establishes a template for what follows in the co-presentation of O'Reilly's and Elson's texts. Instrumental accompaniment—clarinet, bassoon, alto saxophone, piano, violin, viola, violoncello, and double bass—is provided by musicians from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra under Tito Muñoz's direction.

In the work's opening moments, instrument sonorities gradually coalesce, and with the emergence of the overlapping English and German phrases the music suggests an Expressionistic quality, the collective sound calling to mind an equally challenging work such as Schoenberg's 1909 monodrama Erwartung. English is the sole language spoken and sung thereafter, with Hong and Duffy giving committed voice to their respective texts. In some of the sixteen parts, the two appear together, in others one only appears, Duffy differentiating herself by largely singing her parts; Hong, by comparison, oscillates between sprechgesang and sprechstimme in a manner appropriate to O'Reilly's texts. In different places, the music shrieks with despair, the instrumental design mirroring the character of the libretto.

Without wishing to imply that Duffy's performance is in any way secondary, Hong's performance proves particularly affecting in the sensitivity with which she gives voice to O'Reilly. Desperation, determination, hope, and exhaustion are conveyed vividly by the singer's expressions, and as the work moves into its final stages, an even more pronounced slowness sets in as if to suggest the body's weakening during the late stages of the disease.

While it is rewarding, the work is without question uneasy listening, from its subject matter to the uncompromising compositional design; the listener is neither coddled nor indulged but instead challenged at every moment. In being so intimate and by limiting its focus to a small number of individuals, the work also imparts a claustrophobic quality that grows increasingly intense as it advances towards its inexorable end. Bereft of a positive resolution, the piece is tragic yet in dealing so unflinchingly with personal material life-affirming nonetheless. One comes away from the experience appreciative of the gift each of us is granted and made cruelly aware of how arbitrarily it can be taken away.

— Ron Schepper, 6.08.2020

5

Lucid Culture

With recording studios officially off limits to large ensembles, and musicians for all intents and purposes unable to earn a living playing concerts with large groups, many classical artists have been sifting through the archives for live recordings made before the lockdown. One harrowing gem among them is composer Michael Hersch’s I Hope We Get the Chance to Visit Soon, streaming at Bandcamp. The centerpiece is a fifteen-part suite recorded live at the Aldeburgh Music Festival in 2018.

The concert begins with a new version of an earlier piece for voice, violin, and cello, …das Rückgrat berstend (German for “bent back”), a setting of a Christopher Middleton poem. The concert’s two sopranos, Ah Young Hong and Kiera Duffy alternate German and English phrases over keening overtones from strings and winds which slowly rise to sudden, sharp peaks and then subside, or burst and then vanish. it’s a vivid portrait of madness.

The album’s central suite interchanges texts from correspondence written by Hersh’s friend Mary Harris O’Reilly alongside poetry by Rebecca Elson, each author a woman who died young from cancer. Hersch, a cancer survivor himself, has explored this theme before, notably in his macabre End Stages suite. In a sense, this is a sequel, although the texts add poignancy as the narrative traces O’Reilly’s inevitable decline.

A troubled, microtonal haze punctuated by gloomy piano sets the stage for a quick diagnosis and a good prognosis which soon evaporates. High harmonics linger ominously while bustle and turbulence emerges below, only to disappear. Arioso hope against hope breaks down into calm, but only fleetingly, and then sheer horror ensues with the singers at the top of their range. The sweep of the orchestration grows to a pained, often wistful grandeur as the suite nears the end. As a portrait of uncertainty and terror – not to mention a chronicle of ineffective new drugs failing to help the critically ill – it matches anything the lockdowners have thrown at us this year.

A brave and important work for the inspired ensemble of clarinetist Raphael Schenkel, bassoonist Cody Dean, alto saxophonist Gary Louie, pianist Amy Yang, violinists Meesun Hong Coleman and Anna Matz, violist Joel Hunter, cellist Benjamin Santora and bassist Piotr Zimnik, conducted by Tito Munoz.

— delarue, 10.22.2020

5

Opera News

I HOPE WE GET A CHANCE TO VISIT SOON by composer Michael Hersch is a painfully personal work. It’s difficult to imagine a more fitting musical setting for broaching the subject of impending death, particularly when it involves a close friend’s fight against terminal cancer. The sixteen-movement set seems like a song cycle, but the profundity of the narrative hints that it’s really a chamber opera at heart.

Written as a companion to his 2012 monodrama On the Threshold of Winter, which tackles similar subject matter, I hope we get a chance to visit soon opens with a setting of poetry by Christopher Middleton (in both English and German). For the remainder of the work, Hersch uses emails sent to him by his late friend Mary Harris O’Reilly during her treatment and hospitalizations for ovarian cancer, juxtaposed and spliced with poetry by Rebecca Elson, who also died of cancer.

O’Reilly’s words are matter-of-fact, as if by sticking to the strict reality of her worsening prognosis and bypassing the communication of her innermost feelings, she might better survive her illness. “I noticed a firm area in my abdomen and made a doctor's appointment to get it checked out. They were pretty confident that it was a benign cyst of some sort,” she says at the outset. Conversely, Elson’s emotionally devastating poetry excavates her despair and futility with an unwavering gaze toward the deleterious effects of the disease:

“They are terrifying, these mushrooms, the way they push up overnight,

… and you know they are feeding off decay, that death is just below the surface.”

Though Elson's language doesn’t often deal with the minute details of her experience, the accuracy of her assessment of cancer and how it feels—both physically and psychologically—simultaneously contrasts and resonates with O’Reilly’s account.

Hersch’s liberal use of dissonance makes for prickly listening. But he also leaves room for legato phrasing and poignant silences. The overall effect is stark and desolate yet beautiful. The paradox between the actual suffering and the beauty of the poetry is deeply unsettling, as it’s meant to be. The orchestral textures move mercurially between searing chromatic chords and elongated notes that act as drones, signifying both stillness and dread. Strings and woodwinds take turns at this visceral-subtle dynamic. These characteristics encapsulate Elson’s surrealism and apocalyptic imagery, as well as O’Reilly’s obfuscated anxiety and fear.

I hope we get a chance to visit soon was recorded by the BBC at the 2018 Aldeburgh Music Festival, and the intensity of the live performance shines through. Conductor Tito Muñoz’s direction of personnel from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra is razor-sharp, while also being sensitive to Hersch’s hyper-specific articulations of mood.

Soprano Ah Young Hong voices O’Reilly’s emails with dramatic severity, communicating her underlying doubts and apprehensions with fearful declamatory speech. In sung passages, Hong’s voice is appropriately crystalline, almost shrill, as if to underscore the fragility of O'Reilly's situation. As the voice of Elson, soprano Kiera Duffy employs vibrato more consistently, in a way that reinforces the quiet trauma without succumbing to melodrama. Hersch reserves the more lyrical vocal writing for Duffy, who imbues her role with musical grace.

— Daniel J. Kushner, 11.02.2020

5

Fanfare

Music has tackled many difficult subjects, including the threat of nuclear annihilation and the Holocaust. There has been music about illness too—in recent times, we’ve had John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1, his response to the AIDS epidemic. I’m sure we will start seeing COVID-19-related works any day now. Talking about AIDS and now talking about COVID-19 has been a survival mechanism, but what about the diseases that make people so uncomfortable that talking about them is almost taboo? What about cancer? Michael Hersch’s I hope we get a chance to visit soon addresses the disease that is a leading killer in the world, second only to cardiovascular disease, and he does it in such an unflinching way that many listeners, I imagine, will not be able to listen to this CD.

Hersch is an American composer, born in 1971 in Washington, D.C. He himself is a cancer survivor, and he has taken his texts from two women who were not so fortunate. These women are his friend Mary Harris O’Reilly, who described her struggles with the disease in letters to the composer, and the astronomer Rebecca Elson, who described her struggles, in a more figurative way, with poetry. These texts are performed (not just spoken, but also sung, whispered, moaned, screamed, and so on) by sopranos Hong and Duffy, respectively. As the work moves from one relatively brief movement to the next, the two voices, which at first alternate, are increasingly woven together. (Death is an experience that all of us have in common?) The 15 movements are preceded by a prologue, which uses a text by poet Christopher Middleton, performed simultaneously by the two sopranos (both in synch and out) in English and in the “subtle remove” of a German translation. The instruments used in this work are clarinet, bassoon, alto saxophone, piano, and string quintet (two violins, viola, cello, and double bass).

Let me warn you that Hersch holds nothing back. There are no moments of dark humor, what hope there is for recovery is soon dashed, and there is no serene resignation or acceptance at the end. In fact, this work ends suddenly, as if the last few pages of those score had gone missing. The music is frequently ugly and sometimes frightening. It is a horror movie, if you will, except you cannot turn it off, your mortality is in the leading role, it is never the least bit fun, and the horror is never gratuitous. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

I cannot imagine what it is like to perform this work. Hong and Duffy are outstanding singers and equally outstanding actresses, performing the music and the texts as if they were looking out from O’Reilly’s and Elson’s failing bodies. To describe the contributions of the instrumental ensemble as, at times, assaults or as acts of cruelty is not going too far. When the ensemble is more quiet, it is the quietness of the ICU, of the IV drip, and of the faces fading out at one’s hospital bedside. This performance was recorded by the BBC at the 2018 Aldeburgh Music Festival, but of course there is no applause at the end. How could there be?

I’ve never heard anything quite like this in decades of listening. I hope we get a chance to visit soon is brutal, and honest, and, in consequence, hard to stomach. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t make an effort, however

— Raymond Tuttle, 1.01.2021

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