US composer wins $250,000

US composer wins $250,000


norman lebrecht

February 02, 2017

A Baltimore symphonist, Michael Hersch received his first career boost from Marin Alsop.

Now Hersch, 45, has been awarded the Johns Hopkins University President’s Frontier Award, worth quarter of a million dollars, ‘to help him share (his) ideas with the world’.

Hersch is head of the Peabody Institute’s Composition Department in Baltimore.



  • Alexander says:

    He can sell it to Hollywood and get another 250 K …if they want to buy this , of course 😉

  • John Borstlap says:

    It seems to me that this award is a very generous gesture towards the angry despair that this man wants to inflict upon the world. The music in the video is entirely traditional in technique, enriched with additional ugliness that signifies common modernity – if modernity is understood as the worst possible sounds capable of offending players and audiences, and titilate the critics’ desire to be seen as supporting the greatness of contemporary art.

  • Anne says:

    I liked hearing the excerpt. The problem isn’t his music, to which some of the previous postings refer. The problem is the money and the way it is distributed. This type of ‘award’ in someways does more damage to the field of composition then good. It is obviously beneficial to the person who gets it. But, there are many good composers who rarely have what they need – which in most cases is time for their work, and in more severe cases, food, shelter and heath care. So much of the money and accolades go to the same small group of people and not necessarily because they are inherently wonderful. Some of this is nepotism and some of this is laziness on the part of adjudicators — picking the low hanging fruit.

    • John Borstlap says:

      I got rather the impression that not low-hanging fruit, which was still suitable for consumption, but fruit that had fallen under the tree a long time ago and in a state of deomposition, was picked-up.

      I find it shocking that such a sum is given to such a bad composer, while in the USA there are so many really fine talents who would be much better candidates: Jonathan Leshnoff, Aaron Jay Kernis, Jennifer Higdon, Pierre Jalbert, Daniel Gilliam (especially HE deserves such reward), Jake Heggie (apart from his Broadway nonsense), Daniel Asia, Paul Moravec. This is not a matter of taste: the music in the video is, objectively, a willful pretentious ego trip repeating a flawed aesthetics that has been outdated and popped-through already very long ago. Maybe it is not even flawed, but a diseased aesthetics – of the kind that was established as a signal of genius when it was thought that ALL great composers in the past had to counter negative critique. So, provoke disgust and you will be rewarded.

      • Meaux Feaux says:

        I don’t think you understand what ‘objectively’ means. Despite the recent efforts of certain government officials, opinions and facts remain separate.

        That being said, I agree entirely with your opinion that his music is pretty rubbish, and certainly not deserving of such a large prize. I do not agree with your wider opinion of it being an outdated, ‘diseased’ aesthetic – I just think that this particular composer manages it in a particular ham-fisted, inept manner.

        I do appreciate the list of other composers to sample. I like a lot of Higdon’s music but her national and (to a lesser extent) international profile is already fairly significant. I agree with you about Paul Moravec deserving a mention; some of his chamber music is really wonderful. One of my favourites is Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, an underrated composer whose violin concerto is up there with the finest works in the genre from the second half of the 20th century…in my opinion 😉

        • David Osborne says:

          I think it’s pointless commenting on other composer’s work, but just want to make this observation. These days success for a composer is measured by awards, grants and commissions gained. We criticise individual decisions such as this one but fail to recognise that the whole system is wrong at a fundamental level. Composers compose invariably with a view to achieving this kind of success because that’s the only measure of success we have left, thoughts of reaching and moving an audience are secondary at best, or simply not part of the equation. There is a growing, inter-generational disconnect between on the one hand the desires and aspirations of audiences and on the other, the views of the decision makers. So, rather than saying scathing things about a composer who has quite reasonably played the system and won, maybe we should be directing our ire towards that very system.

          • John Borstlap says:

            But is it a ‘system’? Isn’t it rather how things go in the real world? Ensembles, orchestras, institutions are free to commission any composer they want and every commission is part of the context of the individual institution. There are no general rules, no regulations, so: no system. Only in countries like Finland and Holland, commissions are regulated through funding systems with committees of ‘experts’, and that functions like in the Soviet Union because such commissions have to be centrally approved-of.

            More important seems to me the consideration that audiences, and often the performers as well, have virtually been written-out of the equation, since audiences and performers are, from the point of veiw of many establised new music circles, considered ignorant, primitive, conservative, and incapable of understanding the music of their own time, in spite of being perfectly capable of understanding movies, literature, TV programmes, fastfood and fashion of their own time. Even concept art museums like Tate in London draws many visitors, and really, there is not much to see there that has any connection with visual art.

            But in the USA, there are many orchestras who commission normal and accessible and thus, tonal composers, as I listened earlier – only a couple of them – and that is the development of a tradition, or rather: a reconnection with a tradition. That offers hope. In Europe, it is another matter altogether since there, modernism has been installed as a ‘new music establishment’ where all the money and most of the commissions go, which makes a reform difficult. But: in the UK that is different, and there it is more like the US.

          • David Osborne says:

            Well no, not a system as such, but rather a commonality of interest that has led to things tending to work pretty much the same way in most places. I have no experience of how it is in the US though and what you say does sound promising. Interesting though to also look at the issue of ‘commissions’ in general. They tend to dominate the scene nowadays but it certainly has not always been so. None of Wagner’s great works were commissioned, indeed the couple of minor pieces of his that were, are rubbish. I’d love to see a return to the time when composers sold works either completed or at least in development directly to performers. It worked!

  • Scott Fields says:

    Worth mentioning is that Peabody is the conservatory of Johns Hopkins University.

  • May says:

    That’s a lot of money for imitation Shostakovich.

  • Brian Morgan says:


  • Peter Owen says:

    If he’s head of the dept. at Peabody I assume he’s already OK for a few bob and not in immediate need of a quarter of a million bucks which might better spent on encouraging younger, impecunious talent. Especially after hearing that excerpt.

  • Mikey says:

    This is all part and parcel of the deeply flawed way in which composition is treated and funded.

    Either money goes to young composers (under 30) who have barely finished their studies and not yet found their voice, or it goes to established professionals with solid university jobs that already pay well and who already get plenty of performances.

    The thing is that between those two extremes there is a much larger population of very talented composers who are struggling to make ends meet.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Yes, but how do we know that these composers, who are struggling, are good or not? We cannot know before they are performed, so that is a catch 22. They have to convince performers of the quality, or at least interest, of their work, and if they cannot make that transition, that says nothing about their talents: terrible crap is happily performed or rejected, as wel as truly great music, and it is just finding the right people / performers that is the challenge which is difficult in itself, but not impossible. Publishers are not helpful because they merely look to what music can provide an income for them, i.e. what has already shown to be performed and bring income. They won’t invest in ‘promising composers’, too great a risk. (And nowadays composers are publishing their music themselves very often.) So, I think both in the USA and Europe, although in different circumstances, the predicament of the contemporary composer is that he/she is on his/her own and has to find the people that are ‘right’ for him/her. It’s more difficult than writing really good music, but it can be done.

  • Donald Raniels says:

    This is a non-argument. The award is strictly intended for Johns Hopkins University faculty members.