The music series at St. David's Episcopal Church in Roland Park, a series offering admirable variety and depth of repertoire, devoted an evening last weekend to works by the extraordinary composer Michael Hersch.
All of the pieces were from early in the career of the 45-year-old Hersch, written around the time he was a student at the Peabody Conservatory, where he is now a faculty member. In addition to two cello works, the program offered the world premiere of his 1997 a cappella choral piece "From Ecclesiastes."
I caught the first half of the concert, which opened with Lavena Johanson playing the Sonata for Unaccompanied Cello No. 1. Written in 1994, it is, like all of Hersch's music that I've heard, uncompromising in its complexity for performer and listener alike.
The composer has moved well beyond the technical and expressive language of this score, but you can sense already in its restless harmonies and darkly beautiful melodic lines a distinctive voice.
The sonata suggests a haunted poem, and Johanson communicated its rare imagery in an intense, virtuosic performance.
"From Ecclesiastes" presents a kind of rumination on the rather bleak verses about the dead being happier than the living, and the unborn even more fortunate, since they have not seen "the evil that is done under the sun."
Hersch responds to this text with vocal writing that exudes an unsettled energy even at its most still and creates richly spicy chords along the way. On first hearing, I wasn't entirely persuaded by the two-movement structure, but the expressive weight of the music, the sense of inner drama, impressed greatly.
So did the assured, nuanced singing by the Choir of St. David's and the Bridge Ensemble, led with a keen sense of mood, dynamics and pacing by Douglas Buchanan (he runs this remarkable concert series).