"It's definitely a challenge," says pianist Garrick Ohlsson, lifting the large full score of Michael Hersch's new piano concerto off the kitchen counter of his San Francisco home and opening it on the table between our coffee cups. On Jan. 4, 2003, Ohlsson will give Hersch's work its West Coast premiere with the Oregon Symphony--which co-commissioned it along with the St. Louis and Pittsburgh symphonies.

On Nov. 7, Ohlsson premiered the work in St. Louis, and he's still working out the tangles in its three intense movements: the jagged lines of themes, the dense clusters of astringent harmonies, the long meditative musings. "I have an interest in new music," he explains. "Not a fanatical interest, but because I feel it's my duty and because it's also my pleasure. Playing new music stretches you--you have to go back to the basics, because you have no long-practiced idea of phrasing or tempo. It's a matter of pure research into what the composer has written."

Ohlsson first heard about Michael Hersch five years ago when the composer was in his mid-20s. An enigmatic genius, Hersch didn't even explore serious music till age 19, when an epiphany--provoked by hearing Beethoven's Symphony No. 5--moved him to study composition at the prestigious Peabody Conservatory, despite the fact he had yet to touch a musical instrument.

Piano and chamber works and symphonies, all tonal and suffused with naked emotion, began to pour out of him, and composers like John Corigliano, John Harbison and George Rochberg began to take notice of his music's hard but sparkling darkness. During this period, Ohlsson received a packet of Hersch's scores and recordings, which he let sit for several months. Nudged by Hersch's agent, Ohlsson decided he'd give the music a listen. "From the first sound," he says, "I was taken. Because here was a voice that I responded to viscerally.
I was taken by Hersch's dark vision
and dark voice--the only analogy
I can make is the searing moments of Shostakovitch."

Ohlsson met with Hersch and told him that he'd be interested in performing the composer's work. "He delivered the concerto five months in advance, which is unheard of," Ohlsson laughs. "Composers are usually faxing you notes the day before the premiere!"

Considering that Ohlsson began his rise to fame around the time Hersch was born, I ask him whether the younger man didn't construct the concerto with Ohlsson's specific gifts in mind--crisp shaping of phrases, massive breadth of vision, powerful muscularity. "I really don't know," says Ohlsson. "He's heard me a lot--but the music is mostly him."

Ohlsson says he tries to approach all new music the same way. "I try to be a tabula rasa and respond to and learn what's there," he says. "As Elliott Carter once said, 'A score is a map of an area you've never been to.' It doesn't tell you everything. Until you know the area, you're not going to drive around without the map." He then smiles a smile that telegraphs just how much he enjoys his latest journey to parts unknown.

Piano Concerto

by Michael Hersch

Oregon Symphony at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway, 228-1353. 7:30 pm Saturday, Jan. 4. $19.50-$77.50.