The New York premiere by the Blair String Quartet (from Vanderbilt University) wasn't quite as notable as some of Hersch's past masterworks, such as The Vanishing Pavilions and Last Autumn (two evening-length works that are among the most significant to come out of Philadelphia in the last 12 years). But because he kept Closed Ward to a reasonable 50-minute length, Hersch can share a mainstream program with Schubert, whose String Quartet No. 14 ("Dewath and the Maiden") was on Thursday's program. Though challenging, the music doesn't require some mighty new-music oracle such as the Arditti Quartet; the perfectly credible Blair had this important addition to the string quartet repertoire well in hand.
Ostensibly, the music is inspired by the etchings of American artist Michael Mazur (1935-2009) depicting scenes in a Rhode Island mental institution, some of which are printed in the program and have a raw, broad-strokes power similar to Hersch's music. One is always happy to know the music's jumping-off point, but it's not necessary.
Much of the piece uses the string quartet medium to create sonorities that might be paradoxically described as vividly pale, against which there are dabs of more bold colors or short themes, vaguely pointing in several possible directions that are left unpursued. Rarely is there a completed thought: All movements end inconclusively, often with several seconds of designated silence that freezes the musical idea in suspended animation. Often, Hersch uses a series of chords, seemingly similar for being voiced with extremes of treble and bass, but with subtle differences creating forward motion and even narrative. Other times, two alternating chords suggest a musical trudge into the unknown, or maybe in circles. When Hersch adds a few extra chords to that, the piece seems to walk on all fours. Emphatic, fortissimo dissonance suggests unsolvable crisis. One movement tosses and turns, like an ill person trying to find a position without pain.
Bleak? Oh yes. This isn't at all what W.B. Yeats had in mind when coining the term "terrible beauty," but it fits.
Contact David Patrick Stearns at email@example.com.