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Composer's work won't fade from memory, thanks in part to PSO

Tuesday, August 01, 2000

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Classical Music Writer

Audiences can't love what they don't hear. It's a tenet contemporary classical music composers such as Michael Hersch know well. When orchestras do perform new works -- still an infrequent occurrence -- they tend to go for the very newest. The lure of the words "world premiere" is strong -- most orchestras feel they can sell a new music concert better if the new piece is a premiere.

However, this leaves a sizable amount of good music on the shelves after a first hearing.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has been guilty of this practice in the past. But the orchestra is reversing the trend with Hersch. The PSO premiered a commissioned work by him called "Ashes of Memory" in January. Rather than letting it drift into faint memory itself, the orchestra recently revealed it will repeat the work in March. It's the first time since 1987 and '89 that the orchestra has repeated a new work within even a few years' time.

The performance is part of a renewed commitment by the PSO and its music director, Mariss Jansons, to the New York-based Hersch, who continues to be one of the hottest new American composers.

"Mariss got very excited after he started working with him," says PSO managing director Gideon Toeplitz. "He just really believes in what the guy is doing."

The PSO also will take "Ashes of Memory" along on its annual Carnegie Hall trip next season and has commissioned the composer's Symphony No. 2, to be performed in 2002.

"I was incredibly flattered and excited," Hersch says about hearing of the return of "Ashes of Memory." "It's people like [Jansons] that I feel happiest working with." He will likely make slight revisions to get "Ashes of Memory" a little shorter in length.

The PSO bent its unwritten rules for programming to include the Hersch. "Some of the issues have to do with the system," says Toeplitz. "We plan two or three years ahead of time, and then we stumble upon a piece we really like and the question is, 'Do we need to wait another three years until we get back to that piece?'"

Hersch says he was truly surprised that the PSO was performing his work again so soon in a subscription concert in Pittsburgh. But the 29-year-old composer is getting used to surprises this year.

The first came in March, when Jansons asked him to compose Symphony No. 2 for the PSO. "That was another total shock," Hersch says. Toeplitz had talked with Hersch generally about doing another work soon after the premiere of "Ashes of Memory." But the actual request came in a high-profile event: backstage at one of the orchestra's March Carnegie Hall concerts. "When they came here in March, in the middle of all these people and commotion backstage, [Jansons] asked me," Hersch recalls. "I just kind of walked out in a daze. There were no negotiations, [this] was just one musician to another, and it felt very nice."

Then came another trade wind blowing his way. In April, he won the Samuel Barber Fellowship in Musical Composition, which entails a year of study at the American Academy in Rome. "It was totally unexpected," he says. "As with all of these big fellowships, you send in your materials very early ... then you just forget about it. You assume you didn't get it. It's sort of imposing that I am going to be living in a totally different country in a few weeks."

Considering Symphony No. 2 to be the most important work he will have yet written -- "For the first time in my life, I feel like I am doing something that may be worthwhile," he says of his maturing aesthetic -- Hersch says he will clear out the space in Rome to write it. He has been extremely busy these days preparing for what will be his make-or-break year.

Next season, Hersch has no fewer than eight important concerts of his music, most in the all-important New York scene. In addition to the Carnegie Hall performance of "Ashes of Memory," highlights include an orchestra work performed by the Brooklyn Philharmonic and Robert Spano, a solo violin sonata performed at New York City's Alice Tully Hall and a concert devoted to his chamber music presented by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra at Powell Symphony Hall in St. Louis. He will have to fly back from Rome several times to accommodate the schedule.

Since his auspicious debut with the PSO last January, Hersch has become totally immersed in the world of professional composing, something few people his age experience these days. He's busy with commissions -- which is great -- but not everything is positive in this high-brow rat race. "As you enter the professional realm, everybody is watching their own back, and [they] don't like people coming up behind them," says Hersch. "It's just sad."

There's also a loneliness that comes with this field of work in the modern era. Largely gone are the extremely close relationships between a composer and an ensemble, church or conductor. Composer cameratas or scenes are also few and far between. "It's very hard when there's not much time to interact with other musicians and people about what we do," says Hersch. "Sometimes I wish the life more of a concert performer, where one has the opportunities to present what it is they do [to] an audience or people that can give something back."

A recluse himself, Hersch recognizes the inherent contradictions in his words. "It's funny, [saying] that it would be nice to have a little more interaction, coming from someone who chooses to spend 23 hours of my day alone. I just mean, to be able to talk to an intelligent person about music, share what I am doing, have someone to bounce things off of, play for once every couple of weeks. I just don't like these stretches where composers are expected to work, work, work and have one outlet every six months."

He will get as much or as little interaction as he wants during his stay in Rome, which is designed to give him space to compose or to let him bounce ideas off of others. There are 25 recipients of the Barber fellowships each year, each from different walks of life. "It's interdisciplinary, in the sense there's architects, sculptors, writers and photographers," he says. "I think it will be a very interesting group of people."

Although Hersch has strong opinions about his profession, he's by no means an unhappy camper in it. Especially not when it comes to working with the PSO.

"I cannot tell you how excited I am," says Hersch. "I can do anything I want. I don't have to worry or make any technical considerations. I haven't had that opportunity, ever. The stuff that I write is for someone who needs to be a soloist, who can play at that caliber. Orchestral, I am always, always thinking about the limitations of who I am writing for. [The PSO players'] abilities are so high that I feel the total freedom to be myself."

The augmented relationship is nothing but a positive for the PSO, as well. Not only is it connected with someone who may be a bright star for some time to come, it also can further expose its audience to contemporary music with a figure who will not be a stranger, not some composer just flying in for a singleton weekend. Also, "It shows that Mariss is getting his arms around American music," says Toeplitz of the very European-centered maestro.

For Hersch, it's more than that. "It's risky, what they are doing with me," he says. "They are not just taking the easy way out and commissioning stuff by people that is retrogressive and puts the general audience at ease. If something is really strong, no matter what it is, the audience will respond, and most orchestras don't see that."



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