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It’s a new season for composer Hersh

Finally it’s spring, no better time to give birth to a new composition. “The Seasons,” by local composer Howard Hersh, commissioned by Music in the Mountains, will have its world premiere on March 30.

Hersh has a long association with local classical music: He is the founder of the Nevada County Composers Cooperative, a contributor to its annual “Wet Ink” concerts, a recipient of a national Music Alive grant in 2000 to be composer in residence with Music in the Mountains, and a mentor of young musicians.

“The Seasons,” a concerto-like piece for string orchestra featuring each of the principal players as soloists, follows a tradition of similarly named compositions. Some of Hersh’s works have even more intriguing titles. “The Hundredth Monkey,” for example, a work for percussionists, is as startling in its sounds as in its name.



Sometimes he gets forcibly to the point. “Shrapnel in the Heart” is based on writings from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; “Early Harvests” consists of songs based on recollections of a Holocaust survivor (first performed at a Music in the Mountains concert in 2000); “Earthly Prayers” combines prayers with the words of victims of political conscience.

“The Pony Concerto,” regarded by some as one of his best works, was issued on CD last week. “Pony” suggests innocence, cleverness and mischief, yet the title of its second movement, “From His Starry Field, Pony Watches Bombs Fall,” suggests a more serious intent among the fun that is a feature of much of his music.




“Music of the heart guided by a keen intelligence,” says Terry Riley, a fellow Nevada County composer.

“Why,” I wondered, “does so much modern music have titles suggesting that it is ‘about’ something?”

Hersh’s reply reminds us of the complexity of our age: “Composers have been going beyond ‘pure music’ for their inspiration since the 19th century. I think today’s composers see their music as a window through which contemporary life can be seen, felt and remembered.”

I asked him how he composes, visualizing him laboriously writing each note with a quill pen. But most of the ink used by composers nowadays is printer ink. Gone is the pen, in favor of sophisticated music software, the mouse and the delete key.

“Can you make a living as a composer?” I asked.

“There is ‘making a living’ and there is ‘living,’ and I cannot think of a stronger way of being alive than writing music,” he replied. But there’s also teaching, broadcasting, conducting, producing concerts, writing and directing Music Now, a Sacramento State-based modern-music ensemble. His is a life often driven by deadlines.

His earlier career, after studying composition at Stanford, also was filled with great variety: He was the music director at KPFA, the “free-speech” radio station; program annotator for the San Francisco Symphony; and founding director of the SF Conservatory New Music Ensemble.

Music in the Mountains has embraced Hersh, as it has many of our local composers, with commissions and the opportunity to work with outstanding professional performers. And professional they need to be, especially when they may first see a new work only days before its first performance.

“Is your work difficult to perform?”

He laughed. “It’s easy to underestimate the difficulty of a work. But then musicians like a challenge, and I’m pretty good at providing that!”

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Charles Atthill lives in Alta Sierra and now wishes he had studied classical music rather than classical languages.

Howard Hersh’s “The Seasons” will be performed as part of the Music in the Mountains SpringFest on Friday, March 30, at 7:30 p.m. at the Amaral Family Center at the Nevada County Fairgrounds. Also on the program by Solisti Glitterati will be works spanning the centuries, featuring Telemann, Tchaikovsky, Poulenc, Sibelius, Respighi, Sir Edward Elgar, and American composer Edward MacDowell.

Full details of Spring Fest, which starts Friday, March 23, and runs through April 1, may be found at http://www.MusicintheMountains.org” or by calling the box office at 530-265-6124.


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