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Michael Hersch's first opera an unconventional take on life and death

Michael Hersch composes music of sobering complexity -- lots of jagged melodic lines, thorny harmonies, quick-shifting rhythms. But even at its densest, his intense work communicates in a way that can make a listener feel privy to Hersch's innermost thoughts.

The composer, who studied at the Peabody Institute in the 1990s and has been on the composition faculty there since 2006, is about to reveal even more of himself this week when his first work for the stage premieres at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

"On the Threshold of Winter," an opera with a single character, addresses mortality in an unusually intimate way.

"This is the most personal thing I have written," Hersch, 42, said.

The composer adapted a libretto from "The Bridge," a collection of poems by Marin Sorescu, written in the last five weeks before that acclaimed Romanian writer's death from cancer. The opening lines of Hersch's work capture a universal sentiment:

"Why am I the one who must enter this hospital/While that man passing by at this very moment/Can proceed on his way?"

It's a question that resonates with particular poignancy for the composer.

"When I was a child, I was living with my grandfather, who was dying of cancer," said Hersch. "He was in his mid-50s. That made a profound impression on an 8-year-old. After that, I associated cancer with older people and entropy. It didn't occur to me that the end point for someone my age would be death."

Hersch learned otherwise about eight years ago, when one of his closest friends — "She was young and beautiful and vibrant," the composer said — was diagnosed with cancer.

"I tried to be there for her," he said, "but in the midst of this, in 2007, I received a cancer diagnosis myself. That doubled the surrealism of the entire thing. Suddenly, the roles were reversed, and she tried to be there for me. About a year later, right when I was coming into the clear, she got worse and, in early 2009, she died. It's still shocking to me."

The loss of his friend and his own brush with severe illness (he remains cancer-free) had a side effect on Hersch's career.

He had already been thinking that the usual path for a composer — working from commission to commission — might not be best for him. Now, any qualms about changing course "were obliterated," he said.

"I realized that to write the best music I can I have to do projects I feel I need to do, to write completely on my own terms," Hersch said. "The sacrifice is no income and no guarantee of a performance."

Before his philosophical change of heart about when and why to compose, Hersch was kept busy fulfilling commissions. They came from the likes of the Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Dallas and Saint Louis symphony orchestras, along with soloists, including eminent baritone Thomas Hampson, and chamber ensembles.

The composer has generated steady buzz for the past decade as more musicians championed his work.

Extra praise invariably resulted when Hersch, a formidable pianist, gave recitals of his own piano music, including an astonishing, 145-minute long piece called "The Vanishing Pavilions." He now holds few public performances, leaving more time to focus on composing.

(The keyboard side of Hersch's career is the subject of a Richard Anderson's fascinating documentary "The Sudden Pianist," seen at several film festivals since its release last year.)

The Virginia-born Hersch, who lives in the Philadelphia area with his wife and daughter and commutes to Baltimore during Peabody's academic year, is likely to get renewed attention with the premiere of "On the Threshold of Winter."

"I spent 20 years considering writing something for the stage, even though no one was asking," the composer said. "It always struck me that the texts I considered were fine without me. I felt it just has to be the right set of circumstances."

Hersch did not expect tragedy to be part of those circumstances. But in 2010, in the wake of his friend's death, he came upon "The Bridge" and felt such a strong connection to Sorescu's verses that he knew he had to do something musical with it.

"While reading it, I realized that everything I had just seen was all right there," Hersch said. "It has been described as a 'death bed diary.' I think of it almost like newspaper dispatches. It's poetry, but it's more journalistic, not a diary meant to be private."

Vivid imagery abounds: "Devils have entered me …/Hordes that kick me with unclean hooves and poke me inside with sharp horns"; "A spider's thread hangs from the ceiling/Directly over my bed./…Look, I'm being sent a ladder to the sky..."

In the last poem, the terminal patient recalls pet dogs, who, when their time came, retreated under a shed: "You'd take them food, water…/They would raise their eyes toward you…/They would close them once again/They could not even wag their tail once to thank you."

The final line — "Terrible is the passage into the fold both for man and animal" — speaks volumes.

"The honesty in the poems was what I appreciated and find increasingly rare," Hersch said. "It repulses some people. It was very powerful to me."

The composer decided the poems could be used for an opera with sets and costumes, rather than a concert piece. The score is for soprano and a chamber ensemble of eight players. Eventually, for clarification, Hersch tagged the piece a monodrama. By any definition, it's unconventional.

To help him bring it to fruition, the composer sought the collaboration of Roger Brunyate, recently retired and much-admired artistic director of Peabody Opera Theatre.

"This needed a good director and someone who could take responsibility," Hersch said. "I trust Roger. But it is very difficult for me simply to let go. There have been times when it has been a great struggle, when our visions didn't mesh."

It seemed last week at a rehearsal held at Peabody (final rehearsals will be in New York) that those visions were still not entirely meshing.

"It is unlike anything I've ever done," said Brunyate. "Michael is basically redefining opera. There is not a single stage direction in the libretto. There are no relationships between one character and another, which I have always considered essential to opera. Michael collaged the poems in ways that don't make literal sense. But in then end, it didn't matter if there was logic."

The director initially devised a production that would have two characters — the singer representing the mind of the dying person, a silent actor representing the body. That didn't fly with the composer.

Subsequently, the director settled on making the first act mostly about the mental state of the doomed individual, the questioning and anger, the railing against fate. "In Act 2, death is accepted," Brunyate said.

As for the visual side of things, the production will incorporate striking life-size (and larger) sculptures of human figures by Christopher Cairns, a neighbor of Hersch's in Havertown, Pa.

Brunyate, who first heard some of the opera's score while visiting Cairns' studio, felt that the sculptural forms "reflected the agony and defiance of Michael's music." In the second act, the atmosphere of a hospital room will be evoked in the staging.

"With a bit of symbolism, a little realism and a lot of psychological lighting, we're making a drama out of it," Brunyate said.

That drama is intensified by the presence of soprano Ah Young Hong, who, like Hersch, is a Peabody alum now on the conservatory's faculty (their student years there overlapped). Her pearly, focused tone and innate musical sensitivity make her ideal for the demanding role in "On the Threshold of Winter."

"It is such an unlikely match," Hong said. "I have never sung music like this. Oh my gosh, it's technically ridiculously hard. I wouldn't say I love it, but when I got the score a year ago, it grabbed me, shook me. I immediately felt this emotional power. But I had to put it away for a few days. It frightened me."

In last week's rehearsal, the soprano fearlessly sang the demanding role, taking the widest vocal leaps with confidence and clarity. The way she communicated the character's pain and insecurities proved even more startling. At the end, after delivering the lines about "man and animal," Hong dabbed at tears in her eyes.

"It takes everything in my power not to go too far," she said. "I have to almost get into a zombie mode. However, Michael's music does not let me forget what this is about. I am never released from it."

Getting "On the Threshold of Winter" to the point where it could be staged by the seasoned Brunyate and feature such gifted artists as Hong, the New York-based new music ensemble Nunc, and conductor Tito Munoz (recently appointed music director of the Phoenix Symphony) took "a wonderful constellation of things," Hersch said.

That included financial support from the Office of the President of Johns Hopkins University and Peabody, and an offer from participants to work for reduced pay. It is a substantial effort for a single performance. Hersch is hopeful that another can be arranged at Peabody in the near future.

Meanwhile, he will continue to compose only what compels him.

"It took into my 30s for me to realize what my strengths are," he said. "I've withdrawn most of my music written prior to 2001. I've become a better composer by recognizing what my weaknesses are. I hope I remain in a state of becoming."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

"On the Threshold of Winter" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Fishman Space, 321 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, N.Y. Tickets are $20 to $40. Call 718-636-4100, or go to bam.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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