Pro Musicis Presents Alexander Hersh in Review
Alexander Hersh, Cello; Victor Asuncion, Piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall
New York, NY
November 30, 2022
It was an exciting assignment to review cellist Alexander Hersh, winner of the 2022 Pro Musicis International Award, as Pro Musicis has such an excellent track record with its winners; having now heard this winner’s recital in Weill Hall, I can say that this awardee is no exception. In a program entitled “Beyond Borders,” this young musician showed an openness and passion for all that he played, and, given the Pro Musicis mission to promote “visionary concert artists who awaken the human spirit wherever they perform,” he seems to be a fine choice.
He played a program of highly diverse composers – Claude Debussy, Paul Wiancko (b. 1982), Benjamin Britten, Robert Schumann, Fazil Say (b. 1970), and Giovanni Sollima (b.1962). Mr. Hersh’s artistic statement on the Carnegie website and the printed program said it all: “This program, entitled ‘Beyond Borders,’ traverses six distinct sound worlds with the cello as a guide. Invoking ancient instruments while breathing life into music of our time, the program probes sonic possibilities, both familiar and fantastical.”
Though Mr. Hersh, as the recent winner of Pro Musicis, tends to get “top billing,” one would be remiss not to give equal credit in all duos to the superb collaborative pianist, Victor Asuncion. It was Mr. Asuncion who played the first declamatory notes of the recital setting the tone for Debussy’s Cello Sonata in D minor. It was good to see the piano lid up on the full stick, as this was repertoire-wise a duo program (except for two contemporary solo cello works). As Mr. Hersh entered with his first big cello phrase, it was clear that the two players were well matched and quite attuned to each other. The duo captured Debussy’s shifting moods well – especially as it moved on through the Sérénade and the spirited finale.
Paul Wiancko’s Microsuite was the Pro Musicis commissioned work that all finalists were required to play, but Mr. Hersh’s performance here was the public World Premiere. As an introduction, the composer Mr. Wiancko writes, “It is exhilarating to discover music that unlocks something in us. As a young cellist, my first plunge into the rich darkness of Bach’s Fifth Suite for Solo Cello was deeply formative. I will also never forget the thrill of stepping into the worlds of Lutoslawski, Chick Corea, or Mahsa Vahdat for the first time. As I composed Microsuite, I channeled the thrill of these moments of discovery, and in the process enjoyed a renewed appreciation for the cello music that impacted me in my youth. I hope this little piece might serve as a reminder that there is always potential to gain a deeper understanding of ourselves simply by stumbling onto something new.” Some of the above influences could indeed be sensed, and, though this listener would probably need a second hearing of the piece to fully grasp it, Mr. Hersh’s enthusiasm for it was certainly infectious and went a long way in breaking any proverbial “ice.” He prefaced the piece by saying, “I consider myself Paul Wiancko’s greatest fan” and shared that he was absolutely “giddy” at the prospect of playing his work. He seems an ideal champion for this composer’s music, and the composer, who was present, took a bow afterwards to much applause.
Mr. Hersh had another tough nut to crack with Britten’s Cello Sonata in C, Op. 65, which closed the first half. This enigmatic piece is, as the cellist suggested “not easy listening” but even the neophyte listener could use his spoken descriptions as a guide to the five movements, from the Dialogo‘s “speech patterns,” to the almost comical variety of pizzicati in the Scherzo, to the bleak Elegia‘s hypnotic figures, to the energy of the Marciamovement (like the gait of someone “not particularly stable”), and finally to the Moto Perpetuo‘s demonic quality, “like a machine out of control.” All were realized expertly by this duo, right through to the dazzling octaves building to the rather “tacked on” sounding C major ending. This duo “sold” the piece.
While Mr. Hersh clearly has a mission to reach out to his audiences, that does not mean he does so at the expense of his own growth or exploration. In other words, there was no pandering. He chose a fair amount of repertoire that would be challenging even for the most experienced player to fathom, let alone to relay to experienced listeners, let alone to relay to the lay listener. The ability to project a conception was thus even more crucial than usual in this difficult repertoire. Thankfully, he did that extremely well throughout the evening,
After intermission, we heard a relatively tame version of the Fantasiestücke, Op. 73 by Robert Schumann (and sounding even tamer in the context of the rest of the program), and then two more contemporary selections, starting with Fazil Say’s Dört Şehir (Four Cities).
Turkish composer Fazil Say is something of a lightning rod for controversy, but his boldness in speaking up about his beliefs in the face of Turkish oppression goes hand in hand with the boldness of his music. Much of the intensity of Dört Şehir is attributed to its time of composition, 2012 when Mr. Say was facing a possible prison sentence. The third movement, Ankara, is filled with evocations of darkness and struggle and is almost unbearable to hear with its loud piano blows and extended techniques. The beauty of the trance-like opening movement, Sivas, lay in sharp contrast as did the jazz-infused final movement Bodrum. The second movement, Hopa, we are told is marked with something akin to “as fast as possible” – to which Mr. Hersh quipped “challenge accepted.” Accepted indeed! Much admiration goes to this duo for championing this deserving work.
The final work on the program was Giovanni Sollima’s Lamentatio (1998) for solo cello. The piece contains an encyclopedic range of extended techniques – plus chanting, wailing, and singing – as the cellist himself described it, “Gregorian chant meets Metallica.” It is not a piece for the shy or stodgy, but Mr. Hersh is neither of those. He took it on with gusto, as he did the entire program.
After rousing applause, he offered a piece by a musician he dubbed “everyone’s favorite encore composer” – Anton Webern (from his early cello-piano pieces of 1899). After some initial tittering, the audience appeared to enjoy this gently lyrical piece, showing that this cellist is already breaking down walls. It will be exciting to watch Mr. Hersh’s career.
Pro Musicis is to be congratulated once again. Incidentally, this concert marked the 100th Pro Musicis recital in Weill Hall, a great milestone to reach. Here’s to the next 100.
by Rorianne Schrade for New York Concert Review; New York, NY