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Song Cycle without Words, By Hersch

Philadelphia Inquirer
Philadelphia Inquirer
By David Patrick Stearns
October 16, 2006

Music speaks to the troubled times in which it was written, though the instances when it addresses its contemporary audiences with unflinching directness are special chapters in history reserved for, say, Kurt Weill in soon-to-be-Nazi Germany and Dmitri Shostakovich in Stalinist Russia. Not so expectedly, Philadelphia-based Michael Hersch took his place among them with his two-hour, 50-part, full-evening piano work, "The Vanishing Pavilions." Premiered on Saturday under the auspices of Network for New Music, the piece represented a summation of the great but disturbing symphonic and chamber works he has written during the last 10 years.

The performance at St. Mark's Church also signified Hersch's emergence as a pianist. Looking a bit like an accountant at the keyboard, he conjured volcanic gestures from the piano with astonishing virtuosity.The evening felt downright historic.

The piece is so directly inspired by British poet Christopher Middleton that the 35-year-old composer and 80-year-old writer can be called collaborators, though no words were set to music. Hersch has described the piece as a shattered song cycle without words. Sections of music were inspired by lines of verse - included in the voluminous program booklet - but didn't literally reflect them. Both artists are the intuitive sorts whose work is better contemplated than explained. But some of Middleton's lines, such as "explosions of clocks and winds without routine," described Hersch's music perfectly.

Nothing in the music is rounded or symmetrical. Everything unfolds in open-ended, haiku-like eruptions, though built on ideas that recur throughout the 50 movements, from a lamenting, chantlike melody to passages of such speed and density you'd think the complete works of Franz Liszt were played simultaneously within three minutes. The long-term trajectory of "The Vanishing Pavilions" is from music of polarized extremes (like our political climate) to something more integrated, but harshly mirroring how elements of daily life that were unacceptable before Sept. 11 are confronted daily. Overtly or covertly, "The Vanishing Pavilions" is about the destruction of shelter (both in fact and in concept) and life amid the absence any certainty. In other words, welcome to 2006.

It sounds daunting and exhausting, but the piece is actually a model of clarity and economy if you can handle the reality Hersch's music embraces. Though seemingly surreal in its collection of cantankerous non sequiturs, the music is hyper-real in its poetic projection of the random horrors of modern life. The piece also has some thrilling virtuoso fireworks - one section has huge blocks of chords that somehow echo in a distant key.

Remarkably, the piece ends with some 36 chords that ascend to a troubled heaven in a route that's direct but could only be carved by Hersch's individualistic use of inner voices. And though the music is as deeply troubled as can be, its restless directness also commands listeners not to be paralyzed by existential futility.