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Somber concerto is worth another look

Oregon Symphony performs Michael Hersch's powerful piece

On Saturday,

Jan. 4, the normally ebullient pianist Garrick Ohlsson will take the Oregon Symphony's audience to a dark place indeed.

A crowd already chilled by Samuel Barber's heart-wrenching Adagio for Strings, Op. 11, will be plunged into Michael Hersch's newly composed Piano Concerto. Tchaikovsky's moving Symphony No. 6 in B Minor ('P‡thetique') concludes the program and may leave listeners with some hope for the redemption of mankind.

Composed for the St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Oregon Symphony orchestras, Hersch's concerto has been performed in St. Louis, where it left reviewers pondering its significance.

'It's a fascinating, if dark, work, in places lyrical and frequently elegiac,' wrote critic Sarah Bryan Miller.

'A somber and introspective piece,' added reviewer Chuck Lavazzi. 'The more I think about it, the more intriguing it becomes Ñ a sure sign it deserves more attention.'

Hersch finished the concerto in Berlin in the aftermath of 9-11, but it wasn't composed in response to the World Trade Center attack.

'This wasn't intended to be an outward memorial,' he says by phone from his parents' home in Virginia. 'It'd be dishonest to pretend this is a time like any other time. What happened last year makes the pain and joy of existence more darkly collective and frighteningly new.'

Ohlsson, who's known for his energy and precision in mastering Chopin and Beethoven, embraces Hersch's work with furious enthusiasm.

'When you ask me who it reminds me of, two names come roaring at me: Shostakovich and Scriabin,' Ohlsson says by phone from his San Francisco home.

'He has Shostakovich's searing, dark tragic quality without the biting sarcasm. And he's like Scriabin in his wild and demonic side. He's feverish, passionate, wild and out of control.

'He does push the envelope, but he doesn't sound like Schoenberg, Stravinsky or Bartok, or Elliot Carter, Stockhausen, Webern or anybody. He sounds like himself.'

Ohlsson found Hersch's work at a time when it occurred to him he hadn't done anything new since 1994.

'A colleague told me about Michael, and his manager dropped off a package of his stuff,' Ohlsson says. 'It sat around until I was reminded, and then I put on a CD and from the first moment I was taken by the sound. That rarely happens.'

The two met, and Ohlsson heard Hersch play some of his work.

'It's wonderful to hear a composer play Ñ the power of expression,' Ohlsson says. 'I said I'd be delighted to premiere a piano concerto or a big solo work, and having a known pianist really helps orchestras sell the program.'

Hersch's concerto is extreme, Ohlsson says:

'The musical language ranges from quasi-tonal to suggested modality to screeching dissonance. It's also extreme in terms of dynamics and speed. The loud music is amazingly loud for a nonamplified ensemble Ñ you could say the same about Mahler.

'A lot of the music is slow with incredibly violent outbursts that are furiously fast Ñ hills and valleys. The huge outbursts in the second and third movements are quite different in character, but you can feel the volcanic quality Ñ it's inevitable from what precedes it.'

Hersch says he found living in Berlin helped his work because people understood his music in a more fundamental way.

'In Germany, I found people reacted quickly. The U.S. is more fractured and the lack of a broader musical community makes it exciting for a composer but difficult as well.

'When I come to Portland, it'll be an absolutely new experience for me and the audience. It's hard to be in a situation where one doesn't know what to expect Ñ especially with music that can require a lot of exposure before understanding.'

Contact Paul Duchene at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .