News Column

New Hersch opera a journey toward death

June 27, 2014

By David Patrick Stearns, The Philadelphia Inquirer

June 28--BROOKLYN -- Among the half-dozen Philadelphia composers currently working on operas, the ultra-expressionistic Michael Hersch is the first to see his produced. On the Threshold of Winter was premiered Wednesday in a small-scale production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music by soprano Ah Young Hong and the Nunc contemporary music group -- and emerged as something so uncompromising that any future presentation in a traditional opera house is unlikely.

Based on Marin Sorescu's 1996 poems written in the weeks before his death from liver cancer, On the Threshold of Winter is a journey into fatal illness that, in Hersch's hands, acknowledges no distance, safe or otherwise, between a listener and the suffering protagonist. This song cycle/monodrama hybrid continues inexorably for two-plus hours, perhaps leaving kindred spirits cleansed and others wanting Mahler's Kindertotenlieder for cheering up.

Yes, it's that dark -- as Hersch tends to be, but in ways that are purely existential and without moral corruption. There are no bad personas in Hersch's works, only innocents confronting an overwhelming world. But all the profound, powerful works he has written in the past don't buy him a place in the theater. Like Schubert and Schumann before him, Hersch may have a blind spot about the stage, if we are to judge from a work that doesn't know when to end or how to leave room for more audience empathy.

As a feat of composition, Threshold is hugely impressive: Hersch is at the peak of his powers. Yet the extreme registers he employs in instrumental works don't allow good text projection in vocal lines, which also fall back on obsessively repeated notes suggesting introspection but wearing on the ear despite the heroic resources and emotional commitment of soprano Hong. Staged by Roger Brunyate, the production (a hospital room with a symbolically demolished brick wall) attempts to create theatrical progression with the patient's deterioration, though instrumental writing for a small string/wind/percussion group (conducted by Tito Munoz) tends to show different perspectives on the same emotional state.

As a cancer survivor, Hersch comes by this piece honestly. But for me, as a caretaker who has seen friends and family to the bitter end, I found the first act so "on the nose" that I recoiled from it. The observational detachment that gives Sorescu great precision was lost in a musical cauldron of unresolved dissonance.

Only in Act II when Hersch steps back, making great use of a Bach-like chorale as a backdrop for emotional content, does one willingly take his journey. But after something so emotionally arduous, is it wrong to want to take home something beyond the misery of illness?


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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer (PA)

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