Michael Hersch's trenchant music, and Weiss' images, at Crane Arts

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Local composer Michael Hersch's intense, uncompromising music was on display on Nov. 20, 2016 at Crane Arts with "Zwischen Leben und Tod: Twenty-Two Pieces After Images by Peter Weiss."

This time, the raw weather worked with the music.

Outside the Crane Arts complex in Northern Liberties on Sunday afternoon, the dramatically whistling wind only heightened the effect of what was happening inside at the Icebox space, where severe visual images coalesced with typically searing Michael Hersch music in Between Life and Death: 22 Pieces after Images by Peter Weiss.

Having experienced this same concert months back at the Brooklyn venue National Sawdust, I must say this presentation of the 80-minute violin-piano work was superior on every level.  Positioned in a well-lighted corner of the expansive space, violinist Carolyn Huebl and pianist Mark Wait played with the confidence that comes from delivering meaning only implied by the actual notes. The Weiss artwork was vividly projected on the large, open, bare white walls of the Icebox. The audience was positioned in a corner opposite the musicians -- perfect for taking in sight and sound. Part of  Crane's new music series, the concert felt like a handcrafted one-of-a-kind event.

Hersch's title is right to refer to the music as "after" the Weiss images, as rarely do they play off each other literally: Much of the poetic content of the experience lay in the disconnect between Weiss' art and Hersch's music, leaving viewers to find their own meaning. Best known as a writer, Weiss (1916-82) was also a visual artist whose often ghostly, sometimes tortured works have, at turns, the masklike faces of George Grosz, the psychological portraiture of Edvard Munch, and the chaotic crowds of Hieronymus Bosch's 16th-century Garden of Earthly Delights. Bodies morph into one another. Tortured Christlike images reappear.

A painting titled The Garden Concert has distracted, isolated musicians with a ghostly, white-clad female that prompted from Hersch a series of musical explosions. A barren tree inspired music that sounded like a Beethoven violin sonata that had been hacked to pieces but whose disassembled parts were in a state of spasm. Several movements later -- the last one, in fact -- the sonata seemed to be chaotically reassembled in ways that nothing came close to fitting.

Much of the music is personal and inward, even by Hersch's uncompromising standards, but it could be unironically gracious, with its rippling arpeggios and treble trills. Fleeting moments could be downright descriptive, with one violin passage faltering intentionally, like someone extremely young or extremely old attempting to play the instrument. 

Hersch's typical extremes weren't absent, though this music more often made its points through specificity of sound rather than gestures. Any number of extended techniques were used with great subtlety. Movements that seemed so spare as to lack eloquence at last summer's Brooklyn concert projected a degree of color on Sunday that explained everything -- as much as Hersch can ever be explained.

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