Four days after its premiere on Sunday in Philadelphia, Michael Hersch's song cycle "a breath upwards" was introduced to Baltimore.
A hearty band of music lovers who had to pass lots of police and barricades (left over from the Freddie Gray protests a few hours earlier) on the way into the War Memorial Thursday night gave Hersch's daunting work an enthusiastic response.
Scored for soprano, horn, clarinet, and viola, "a breath upwards" has a sung text drawn from Dante -- mostly "Purgatorio," with some "Inferno" at the end -- and another, un-sung text drawn from Ezra Pound's "Cantos." The fragmentary Pound lines are meant to be contemplated during four instrumental interludes in the 12-movement cycle.
At a time when so much new music these days seems be in comfortable alliance with the tonal world, Hersch's uncompromisingly complex style invariably delivers a fresh jolt. The intellectual brilliance involved is startling enough; the addition of expressive intensity can be almost overwhelming.
Last fall saw the premiere of the mondrama "On the Threshold of Winter," a piece steeped in memories of a close friend's death from -- and Hersch's own brush with -- cancer. The singer in that premiere, soprano Ah Young Hong, was in the composer's ear when he set about creating "a breath upwards."
This score, Hersch wrote in a program note printed in Thursday's program, was his effort "to get away from illness, fear and loss." That he turned to parts of Dante's epic poem about purgatory and hell might not seem the most logical way of going about this attitude shift, but it's a perfectly natural choice for the deep-thinking Hersch.
On first hearing, "a breath upwards" struck me as frequently mesmerizing, sometimes tenebrous.
The vocal writing encompassed a wide stretch, with many a note so stratospheric as to make it impossible to articulate words. On the other hand, those high notes became a significant part of the tonal palette, mixing intriguingly with the rich range of instrumental sounds.
I was fascinated by the way Hersch treated some descriptive words in a time-honored manner -- a steep downward vocal line at the word "descend," for example, and a similarly evocative cascading flash from the instrumental group to launch the song that begins with "I never saw meteors fall so fast."
And in a song that conjured up images of an "open edge" -- "on one side I feared the fire, and on the other, I was afraid of falling off" -- the harmonic motion suggested a slow teetering back and forth.
The most extraordinary and moving passage was the final song, when the dark mood lifted just enough, leading to a long, beautiful melodic arc for the singer in the final line: "And then we emerged to see the stars again." The sudden cut-off at the end of that line -- like the way a falling star evaporates in an instant -- was a master stroke.
Not all of the songs were so atmospheric, and it was often difficult to grasp what Hersch wanted the music to communicate. But something strong and vital emerged nonetheless, something that touched on the transitory nature of life, the way we are connected, in some way, to those who go before us.
The performance was impressive. The grand old venue (recently put into fresh concert use thanks to the War Memorial Arts Initiative coordinated by composer Joshua Bornfield) is too cavernous for acoustic clarity, but that did not detract much from the experience. The soprano's laser-beam tone and powerful concentration had a compelling effect; her hushed delivery at end of the ninth song was especially riveting.
There were stellar contributions from Jamie Hersch (horn), Gleb Kanasevich (clarinet) and John Stulz (viola), sensitively conducted by Blair Skinner.
The program opened imaginatively. Jamie Hersch (Michael's brother) and pianist Matthew Ganong, offered arrangements of two Mahler songs, interspersed with three solo piano pieces by Brahms to create a richly lyrical suite. Ganong's playing was so warmly nuanced that it was almost possible to overlook the shortcomings of the far-from-prime-time piano at his disposal.