Saturday, 27 September 2014

A new release featuring a Concerto for Piano and Ten Instruments and a Suite for Harpsichord on a new release, shows Howard Hersh as a composer that we need to hear more of

The American composer, Howard Hersh (b.1940)  studied piano in Los Angeles and composition at Stanford University. He has been the recipient of grants and awards from organizations that include Meet the Composer, the American Symphony Orchestra League, ASCAP, the American Composers Forum, the Puffin Foundation, and the Rex Foundation.  Hersh’s works have been performed at venues that range from the Tanglewood Festival to Grace Cathedral, from European concert halls to the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Hersh was recently awarded an Irvine Fellowship in the international multi-disciplinary, Sally and Don Lucas Artists Residency Program at Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, California where, as the focus of his residency, he will compose a children’s opera, Zazzi and the Trees of Omburo.

Together with his composition work, he has founded and directed many new music groups, including the San Francisco Conservatory New Music Ensemble, and served as Music Director of KPFA-FM.

Howard Hersh has recently released a new CD entitled Angels and Watermarks featuring his Concerto for Piano and Ten Instruments, his Suite for Harpsichord ‘Angels and Watermarks’ and ‘Dream’ for solo piano. Pianist and harpsichordist, Brenda Tom is joined in the concerto by Laurie Camphouse (flute and piccolo), Rob Bailis (clarinet and bass clarinet), Eric Brewer (trumpet), Steve Suminski (trombone) Patti Niemi (percussion), Liana Berube and Philip Brezina (violins), Ying Ying Ho (viola), Ellen Sanders (cello) and Richard Worn (string bass) directed by Barbara Day Turner


Hersh’s Concerto for Piano and Ten Instruments (2008) is in three movements.

Movement I has a dynamic opening for piano which slows to a florid passage, tonally free but full of melodic invention. The music develops through a number of variations, with detailed working over of the material before rising to a peak when the instrumental ensemble joins. There is just a little of the feel of Stravinsky in the use of this ensemble, yet with a thoroughly American spaciousness. Hersh’s often playful use of his instrumental palette is wholly engaging, with Barbara Day Turner drawing some fine details from her ensemble. Hersh’s fine instrumental textures are really appealing. Eventually there is a solo piano section that brings a melancholy feel with some fine fluent playing from Brenda Tom. The instrumental ensemble soon re-joins before the music becomes frenetic, the percussion driving the music along leading to the opening spacious theme before the faster dynamic coda.

Movement II has a rapidly rising and falling two note motif for the ensemble before the piano enters with a descending motif taken up by the ensemble as the theme is weaved around. Soon the music quietens with the two note motif for piano as the music slowly moves ahead. Hersh’s invention as the music weaves around the instruments and piano is very fine. Later the music gathers pace before slowing with delicate little accompaniment to the piano but soon flows forward to the coda.

Xylophone and piano open Movement III and are soon joined by the other instruments in a spiky, insistent theme. More of a flow develops with the piano keeping the insistent rhythm to which the ensemble now joins. The music develops for piano through some complex textures before the main theme appears insistently. There is some extremely fine musical invention as the piano and ensemble weave the theme. Eventually there is a dramatic virtuoso piano section superbly played by Brenda Tom as the music is worked out in a cadenza. The instrumental ensemble re-join before the music moves quickly to the coda that ends on a piano phrase.

Brenda Tom is a fluent and accomplished soloist. The instrumental ensemble directed by Barbara Day Turner is exceptionally fine.

The title of Angels and Watermarks, Suite for Harpsichord (2004) comes from a story by Henry Miller in which he continually alters a painting until he discovers an angel, his watermark that was waiting to be revealed.

It is in five movements opening with Before (Angels) that has a baroque sounding theme with a modern harmonic slant. Brenda Tom beautifully spaces the delicate phrases as the music progresses, bringing terrific dexterity to her playing. Soon the music takes on something of a ‘swing’ but slows as the baroque style theme returns. The theme is developed before its gentle, thoughtful end.

Flying Lessons brings a frenetic, repeated motif, rushing all over the manuals with such terrific playing from Tom. There are tremendous textures lower on the manuals, with terrific textures and rhythms.

The gentle Little Angel Dreams has the harpsichord providing sounds almost that of a lute or guitar, such are the short phrases, as one can hear a lullaby tune emerging. The tempo picks up as the theme is varied. There are lovely dissonances as the music slows, becoming somewhat jazzy when the music picks up again before the opening statement returns for the coda.

Touch brings rapid scales up the keyboard, followed by a descending motif that is then floridly worked out. There is more tremendous playing from Brenda Tom. At one point the music becomes bluesy, before being taken through more baroque like passages, a broad florid passage, before a fast and furious coda.

There is a slow, baroque sounding theme to the final movement, After (Watermarks), that picks its way to a quiet conclusion.

As I have already made clear, Brenda Tom provides some terrific playing in this fine work.

Dream (2003/2012) was begun in 2003 whilst the composer was exploring ways of incorporating tonal harmony. Originally part of a larger work, Hersh completed this piano version in 2012.

The piece opens thoughtfully with a two note motif that slowly develops before broadening, whilst retaining its gentle, rather Debussian nature. The theme is subjected to many different textures and harmonies, finely revealed by Brenda Tom, before falling to a hushed coda.

On the evidence of this disc we need to hear more of Howard Hersh.

The recordings of the Concerto and Suite for Harpsichord, from Fantasy Studios, Berkeley, California, are rather closely miked causing some instrumental sounds to be prominent but overall there is excellent detail albeit with a slight lack of warmth. The close recording of the Suite for Harpsichord suits the solo harpsichord far more.

The recording of Dream, made at the Opus Studios, Berkeley, California, is good whilst being just a little boxy.

There are brief but helpful notes from the composer.

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