Fred Hersch’s reputation preceded him Friday night, and Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall was filled with audience members 10 minutes before he took the stage.
People lined the walls, willing to stand for an hour and a half to hear the famed pianist play. And it was for good reason: Hersch has been proclaimed “the most arrestingly innovative pianist in jazz over the last decade or so” by Vanity Fair and nominated for three Grammy awards.
Luckily, the College was able to reserve a night out of Hersch’s busy schedule for him to perform for our community. Playing many of his award-winning compositions, Hersch seamlessly combined original works and jazz classics. His performance was simple and unimposing with few theatrics, and yet the calmness he applied to his work was remarkable.
Even in the intimate, casual setting of Brooks-Rogers, Hersch maintained an air of formality indicative of a classical training, maintaining a serious composure throughout the set and bowing from his seat after each piece. He gave short, informative introductions before each composition, explaining its origins and peppering the performance with elements of his personal history. The mention of the three-month coma that inspired one song warranted gasps from the many grey-haired members of the audience.
Hersch is a beautiful performer, a true master of the piano and its art, with an ability to play his instrument with such an ease and grace that makes it seem like the piano is alive and doing the work for him. He demonstrated that he is indisputably a virtuoso pianist with a light touch and mastery of dynamics. Still, he showed that a musician can make all sorts of contorted, soulful faces without allowing a comparable level of emotion to come across in his playing.
Particularly intriguing was the piece he composed concerning a dream he had while in a coma; the vision consisted of a young boy reliving old jazz classics. This piece seemed to embody the concert as a whole: a delicate combination of the old and the new, the past and the future of jazz.
At the conclusion of his set, he was met with a standing ovation and returned for an encore song entitled “Valentine.” The enthusiasm demonstrated by the highly diverse audience was particularly telling of Hersch’s success: Young local piano students with their parents, college students and musicians and retired locals comprised the packed auditorium.
“He was able to hit the ‘sweet spot’ of the piano keys, getting the quadruple pianissimo and loudest fortissimo dynamics without breaking a sweat,” Daniel Schreiner ’14 said. When Schreiner asked Hersch about this skill after the performance, Hersch replied simply and eloquently, “It’s just one of the tricks of the trade!”
Additional reporting by Sarah Rosemann ’13, Claire Seizovic ’13 and Jackson Saul ’13.