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A Chamber Work Rich in Emotion

Philadelphia Inquirer
Philadelphia Inquirer
By David Patrick Stearns
October 20, 2009

The audience at St. Mark's Church bundled up amid Saturday's damp cold for the premiere of Michael Hersch's new, epic-length chamber work Last Autumn, but performers were rightly dressed for summer. They had a great deal to do. Written in two parts that last three hours, Last Autumn has 41 exclamatory movements, many of them haiku-like, creating a composite portrait of something too huge and undefinable, glorious and terrible, to be seen in anything more than glimpses - voiced by the unconventional pairing of two linear instruments, French horn and cello.

It's the second part of a trilogy begun by the 2006 evening-length piano work, The Vanishing Pavilions. As great as that piece is, Last Autumn eclipses it. The meaning behind the black-on-black thickets of notes in Pavilions has to be taken on faith. No such problem in the airier, more distilled Autumn, whose emotional riches defy the harmonic limitations of the instruments.

The music exploits the instruments in every imaginable way: The composer's hornist brother, Jamie Hersch, delivered all manner of foreground/background effects, with particularly dramatic moments afforded by grace notes that came from distant, graceless places. Cellist Daniel Gaisford gave the illusion of playing a number of instruments with simultaneous bowing and plucking effects. Together, they created wild portraits of alienated togetherness. Some of the best music was solo soliloquies.

Periodic lullabies lamented while giving comfort. However large, the piece never sprawls, thanks to its arch-like structure: Poem fragments by W. G. Sebald quoted in the score begin with bleak and wintry images, giving way to visions of fertility before lapsing back into darkness. The musical unity of Last Autumn comes from recurring leitmotifs, mainly a stuttering series of abrasive chords suggesting a blinding revelation. Subsequent appearances weren't thematically altered as much as they were presented from different vantage points - like Monet paintings that repeat the same object in different lights. The performers supplied a seemingly infinite array of color and inflection. This piece is barely imaginable without their capabilities and personalities. Often, Hersch's pieces are more about ideas than sound; here, idea and sound were inextricably one, and more viscerally exciting for it.  The concert was recorded, so Last Autumn eventually will be available to more listeners than Saturday's intrepid audience, whose long, vigorous applause indicated that Hersch's more personal and demanding works are no longer appreciated by only a few.