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Peabody prof, composer Michael Hersch receives $250,000 award from JHU

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Michael Hersch, a composer known for extraordinarily complex and emotionally rich works, is the recipient of the 2017 President’s Frontier Award from Johns Hopkins University. Hersch will receive $250,000 "for research and innovation."

Hersch is an alumnus of the Peabody Institute of JHU, where he joined the faculty in 2006. He heads the composition department.

"I'm still speechless," Hersch said. "I had absolutely no idea about this. To keep a secret at Peabody is a pretty amazing thing."

The composer said it was too early to articulate specific ways the award money may be utilized.

"It will take time to process what will be possible with this kind of support," Hersch said. "I need to take a deep breath."

Known for writing lengthy works -- his "Vanishing Pavilions" for solo piano lasts three hours, for example -- Hersch said that one possibility for the money is to help fund performances of large-scale projects "that no normal presenter would undertake."  

In a statement, JHU President Ronald J. Daniels called Hersch "an uncommon talent, and a unique voice in American music."

Recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship in Music Composition and other honors, Hersch has come to wide attention for orchestral, vocal, chamber and solo instrumental works.

Hersch said that the Frontier Award would allow him to concentrate on composing "free from financial worry" and to "fulfill creative visions currently residing only in my imagination." Those visions include combining music with other genres, including visual art, and working on large-scale pieces. 

Recent highlights of Hersch's career include his first opera "On the Threshold of Winter," a piece for soprano and orchestra based on death-haunted poems by Marin Sorescu. It had a well-received production in New York in 2014 and a searing production at Peabody a year later.

Next month, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra gives the New York premiere of "end stages" at Carnegie Hall.

The Frontier Award was funded by JHU trustee Louis J. Forster and alumna Kathleen M. Pike to recognize "those who are poised to break new ground and be leaders in their fields."

The award recognizes one faculty member each year for five years -- the 2017 award is the third one. Previous recipients were Sharon Gerecht, an associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in the Whiting School of Engineering; and Scott Bailey, an associate professor in the Bloomberg School of Public Health's Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

The finalist for the 2017 award is Xin Chen, associate professor of biology in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. She receives $50,000 "to support her research and academic pursuits."

That JHU, "known internationally for medicine, engineering and science would use its resources to support arts and culture," Hersch said, "sends a very powerful message to a wider culture and other institutions."   

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