He came onto the piano at a late age. And he developed rapidly a formidable technical grasp of the instrument--as a vehicle for his own compositional mazes and labyrinths.
All this is addressed in the CD/DVD set The Sudden Pianist (Innova 859). There is a performance of his solo piano work "Suite from the Vanishing Pavilions," a one-hour version of the initial piano work written some years ago. These are some of the most essential sections of the longer work, arranged in a flowing sequence. He performs the work live at Merkin Hall in New York. It fills a CD and is also presented as a video on the DVD. The DVD then also includes Richard Anderson's half-hour film that gives the title to the set, The Sudden Pianist.
The music is masterful, very modern, filled with extraordinarily difficult passages of expanded tonal-atonal virtuosity. Crumb-meets-Messiaen-meets-Cecil Taylor? A "Concord Sonata" for today? Not exactly, but there is something of all that happening. Only this is quite original, fascinating, brilliant music in its own right.
The movie looks at Michael Hersch's involvement as pianist and composer for the piano in a way that makes you want to hear all of the music afterwards. He is articulate and the narrative lays out his story with enough depth and skillful creation-editing that personally I was riveted by it.
The "Suite from the Vanishing Pavilions" most certainly qualifies as one of the essential piano works of this century thus far. It has spaciousness, poetic pacing, and real musical dash.
Michael Hersch has the tools and the imagination to be one of the leading lights of modern music. This set does much to convince me of that. But it also has the ravishing piano work for us to experience again and again. For the modernist out there, it will bring joy. It may convert more than a few listeners to modernism, too! Do not miss this one.