Miranda Cuckson champions Michael Hersch at Spectrum
Wednesday night at Spectrum was the opening concert in a three-day festival dedicated to the music of composer Michael Hersch. It was a powerful experience, which begged the question of how it is possible for a composer as fine as Hersch to be so little heard in New York City.
Fine? Hersch is outstanding, with superb craft and a voice that is distinctive while showing clear and pervasive roots in the classical tradition. His work has a unique directness, with every moment dedicated to the urgent expression of meaning. There are not only no empty gestures, but nothing is spent merely on abstract structure. The program was intense, with two pieces for solo violin, in the snowy margins and the weather and landscape are on our side (both played by Miranda Cuckson) surrounding Carrion-Miles to Purgatory, for violin and cello, with Cuckson joined by Mariel Roberts.
While his earlier style was a dense, energetic hyper-romanticism, in this decade Hersch has been producing an ascetic, invigoratingly abrading expressionism. The spare textures and Shaker-like plainness give each musical event weight of meaning in the right hands. His use of sustained dissonance as both a structural and expressive tool is reminiscent of Arvo Pärt, even as the sound differs drastically.
The pieces Wednesday night were either recent or new works, with the duo heard in its New York premiere, and Cuckson delivering the world premiere of the weather and landscape. The violinist has recorded some of Hersch’s string music on the Vanguard label, and her sound and concentration make her an ideal partner. She played with a rounded tone at every dynamic and had a grainy timbre that at times sounded wounded.
Through her (and equally as well through Roberts in Carrion-Miles), the music demanded attention. Despite the inherent toughness of Hersch’s sound, this was in no way a difficult experience—like Shostakovich, he projects the force of an idea and an experience without ever explicitly explaining what it is. Where the accumulated weight of intense emotions can overwhelm, through Hersch it fascinates.
Each work was made up of short sections, from seven to a baker’s dozen. Each section was concentrated around one idea—a series of sustained pitches, a four-note phrase—and this, along with Hersch’s superb judgment for duration, kept the music fresh. Many sections stated an idea with determination and then ended with a tiny, apologetic pianissimo event.
The solos could be heard as interior monologues, the duo as a dialogue. And literature was behind each work: in the snowy margins and the weather and landscape were reactions to writings by Bruno Schultz, while the duo took its title and inspiration from extracts of Robert Lowell’s poem Lord Weary’s Castle. Schultz was a victim of the Holocaust, who seemed to Hersch, as the composer mentioned in spoken remarks, especially tragic for his inability to accept the inevitability of what he saw around him. Those pieces were bleak without ever indulging in bathos or sentimentality.
Through the thirteen sections of Carrion-Miles, the violin and cello at times supported and responded to each other, while at others had completely independent purposes, sharing the same circumstance but oblivious to the other. As the music went along, the experience of the concert grew increasingly deep and mysterious. In place of explicit narrative, the pieces conveyed the sensation of a profound internal experience for which words are inadequate.
Spectrum presents the Music of Michael Hersch continues at 8 p.m. Thursday and 7 p.m. Sunday. spectrumnyc.com