Howard Hersh (1940- ) studied music and earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at Stanford University. He is a California native and he succeeded Charles Amirkhanian as music director at KPFA. His Pony Concerto (2005), Braided River Nights (2004) and Sonata for Violin and Percussion with String Bass obligato (2000) were released on Albany Records in 2007 and his Dancing at the Pink House (2006) is available as a free download on Bandcamp.
I had not been familiar with Mr. Hersh’s music when I agreed to review this disc but I found that liked it immediately and it made my list of favorite releases for 2014. The featured piece here is the Concerto for Piano and Ten Instruments (2008) and it is a tour de force. Hersh writes in a tonal idiom that sounds to this reviewer’s ears like a mix of Conlon Nancarrow and Francis Poulenc. This concerto is virtuosic in the extreme but not the empty virtuosity of the romantic composer pianists (Anton Rubinstein bores me to tears). This work in three movements sounds very difficult to play but manages to remain playful and entertaining, never taking itself too seriously. Pianist Brenda Tom does a fantastic job (she must have fingers of steel) and is very ably supported by the small ensemble conducted by Barbara Day Turner. Rapid attacks, scales and arpeggios keep the soloist very busy and the ensemble clearly listens and collaborates in what is an electrifying performance.
The other pieces on the disc are a sort of strange contrast to the concerto. First is a suite for harpsichord, Angels and Watermarks (2004) was composed during Hersh’s residency at the Djerassi Arts Center. The piece is in five movements and is a significant contribution to the contemporary literature for that instrument. Cast in the manner of a baroque suite, each movement plays on familiar forms. The first movement is a ponderous prelude which is followed by a playful moto perpetuo, a gentle lullaby, then a spectacular jazz inflected toccata and finally a sort of non-literal recapitulation of the prelude. Again we are treated to the dynamic keyboard work of Brenda Tom who executes each movement flawlessly and with great expressiveness.
The final work on the disc is Dream (2012) which the composer (who wrote the liner notes) says is his exploration of how to incorporate tonal harmony in his work. It is a soft, slow meandering piece in which he manages to make his explorations into a beautiful and restful work. Brenda Tom is the dedicatee of both this and the harpsichord suite and she demonstrates her ability to work with soft expressive textures.
All in all a great CD which will delight any new music fan. It is available from CD Baby and Amazon. Highly recommended.