As his own life was slipping away, Richard Strauss reportedly said that the experience was much like he had depicted in his splendid tone poem "Death and Transfiguration." We should all be so lucky.
I suspect that facing one's mortality head-on, aware of each gritty grain of sand falling through the hourglass, is more likely to feel like "On the Threshold of Winter," the stunning monodrama by Michael Hersch based on Marin Sorescu's deathbed poems. The work's Baltimore premiere Saturday night at the Peabody Institute proved to be, in every way, an extraordinary event.
The production set something of a new standard for music theater at Peabody.
Everything about the venture looked first-class -- the moody stage design by Kevin Tuttle, subtly lit by Douglas Nelson and incorporating sculptural pieces by Christopher Cairns; the direction by James Matthew Daniel, who managed to add momentum, in mostly effective ways, to what is essentially a static series of interior reflections.
Everything sounded first-class, too. Soprano Ah Young Hong delivered a tour de force. The musicians of the Nunc ensemble excelled, superbly conducted by Tito Munoz -- violinist Miranda Cuckson, cellist Felix Wang, flutist Elizabeth Mann, oboist Andrew Nogal, clarinetists Vasko Dukovski and Benjamin Fingland, percussionist Matthew Gold, pianist Michael Sheppard.
(The world premiere of "On the Threshold of Winter" was given last year by Hong, Munoz and Nunc at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.)
The composer was moved to write the score after the death of a close friend from cancer, at a time when Hersch was successfully treated for cancer. He had Hong's voice in mind for the piece from the start; both are Peabody alum now on the faculty there.
Hersch, whose works always impress me with their intellectual breadth and emotional sensitivity, reaches an awfully dark place with this one.
A more conventional composer would fashion, at most, an hour's worth of material from Sorescu's sobering verses; Hersch has created a two-act, one-role opera.
A more conventional mind might be tempted to provide plenty of contrast to ease the gloom; Hersch offers an uncompromising, unflinching look at what it means to be given a death sentence -- to be scared, angry, proud, wistful, sardonic, in pain. Any lightness along with way is filtered, as if through the tilted blinds of a hospital room.
Not music for the faint of heart, then, or the depressed (there were some desertions during intermission on Saturday). But what a riveting experience.
Things could have been doubly rewarding had surtitles been used. Too much of the text was impossible to catch, especially when when the voice had to compete with the ensemble or the when melodic lines soared, as they frequently did, into stratospheric territory, where no singer can be very distinct with words.
Although I had read the poems a couple of times, I wanted to have a firmer connection to the words in the moment. Not being able to do so was a major frustration.
That said, there was no difficulty in understanding Hong's immersion in every syllable, her ability to communicate the essence -- the soul, if you will -- of Sorescu's searing poetry.
She often produced a kind of disembodied sound, appropriately enough, the tone filed down to a pure, delicate stream of sound. There was plenty of force as well, a force that seemed to spring from the most naked and raw of feelings.
The soprano's uncanny vocalism was matched by remarkable acting skills; she seemed unfazed by having to move large scaffolding and other props around the stage periodically. (She punctuated the score with some whimpering and sobbing along the way -- not really necessary, given the emotion already present in text and context.)
In addition to his assured way of writing for the voice, Hersch offers an astounding variety of instrumental colors, creating layer after layer of sonic and expressive richness. Even the appearance of chimes near the end, which could turn into cliche, works wonderfully; Hersch has uses them for more than tolling.
The score is often quite tonal, a surprise to me, given how thorny Hersch's music can be. I was struck on Saturday by a lilting passage with a folk song quality, for example, and the occasional appearance of chorale-like themes (such a Bach device could not be more fitting). And there's a somber marching motive with something of the contour and darkness of "Bydlo" from Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition."
Above all, I kept hearing reminders of Mahler in "On the Threshold of Winter," particularly "Kindertotenlieder" ("Songs of the Death of Children") -- it made me think that a subtitle for Hersch's work could be "Songs on the Death of Adults."
I don't mention these things to suggest that Hersch is making any conscious nod to any other composer or composition. They just happened to catch my ear, to touch a nerve somehow, adding to the nerves already struck so deeply by a work of great originality, daring, and disturbing power.