The opening of a concert hall makes an obvious occasion to commission a new piece of music, one more way to emphasize the freshness of the unveiled venue.
Traditional expectations on such occasions are for something festive and fanfare-driven - exactly what the Music Center at Strathmore is not getting from Michael Hersch, whose seven-minute Arrache will be premiered by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra tonight at the inauguration of its second home in Montgomery County.
The nature of the new score is what anyone who has listened to the extraordinary Peabody Conservatory alum's music over the years would expect - serious, intense, complex, much like the composer himself.
"Michael Hersch is not going to write a superficial piece," says Miryam Yardumian, director of special projects for the BSO. "He's a very deep person."
Hersch, 33, certainly heard lots of opinions about writing for a grand occasion. "It is hard to get away from people telling you what a concert hall-opening piece is supposed to be," the composer says. "To me, the opening of a concert hall in the 21st century is a solemn, serious occasion. It is an achievement that has weight to it."
Arrache clearly has weight of its own. The title is French for "removed" or "torn from."
The impetus for the composition came from the harshness of world events last summer - news accounts, video images (and, especially, the sounds on those videos) of hostages held in Iraq. "That colored my thoughts and feelings while I was writing," Hersch says. "But the piece is not about those events; it is not supposed to represent them."
Arrache opens and closes with slow, pensive material; in between is a brisk, tense section that develops four separate thematic motives by means of an ages-old device, the fugue.
"In certain ways, it is more complex than anything else I've written, certainly in terms of density," Hersch says. "But even with all that density, I hope I have achieved clarity at the same time. I think an audience can get it in one listening. "
The piece is scored for large orchestra, but no percussion - "That would have just confused the matter," the composer says.
Since earning his master's degree from Peabody in 1997, Hersch has enjoyed remarkable attention from the music world. He is the recipient of three prestigious fellowships - a Guggenheim, the Rome Prize and the Berlin Prize. He has had works commissioned and/or performed by the Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Oregon symphonies, as well as acclaimed violinist Midori.
Members of the Berlin Philharmonic recorded his Octet for a Vanguard Classics CD devoted to Hersch's chamber music. A second CD on that label - both were released in 2004 - features his Sonata No. 2 for unaccompanied cello and a solo piano piece played by Hersch.
"It's a small miracle that Vanguard put out a second recording of my work," the composer says. "The owner told me to thank Leon Fleisher." (Fleisher's first recording of two-hand solo piano music in 40 years, released by Vanguard last summer, has been a strong seller.)
Hersch, who spent recent years based at the American Academy in Italy and Germany (stays made possible by those fellowships), lives in the Philadelphia area with his wife, a teacher at Temple University. He's looking into teaching prospects, but composing will continue to be his primary focus. Potential projects include a first opera and a third symphony.
He also plans to compose a large-scale solo piano work that he would perform around the country. (His keyboard talent is formidable.) Championing his own music onstage is one way to guarantee exposure.
"I came back from Europe to a much more conservative country," Hersch says, "and the music world has picked up on those currents. Programming is getting more and more conservative everywhere. People who program anything that is challenging deserve great credit."
Opening gala (sold out): 9 tonight with the BSO, cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
Where: Music Center at Strathmore, North Bethesda.
For future BSO concerts at Strathmore: Call 877-276-1444 or visit www.bsoatstrathmore.org