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Fred Hersch: Leaves of Grass

The problem in setting Walt Whitman’s poems to music is that they sound musical all by themselves: They have decisive cadences and rich sonorities, repetitions and sequences that create grand structures from small parts, and a feeling of spontaneity that was the product of numerous revisions over many years. The challenge is to create music just as supple, inventive, wide-ranging, and deeply felt as the poetry, to both celebrate and amplify Whitman’s achievement. It is deeply satisfying to report that, with his new album Leaves of Grass, pianist Fred Hersch has composed just such music.

Hersch establishes a unity among his settings that gives the group a cumulative power greater than any individual song. The quest for unity begins with his selection of poems from Leaves of Grass; as he reports in his artist’s statement, “I found myself drawn to whole poems, titles of poems and sections of larger poems that conveyed universal and inclusive sentiments: appreciation of the present moment, wonder at the miracle of nature in all its forms, freedom to be oneself and express that openly, and above all, open-hearted love of all beings.” Thus, the poems seem to grow from and reflect upon one another as the music gracefully shifts between awestruck pastorales, proud celebrations and magical nocturnes, with a few flickers of genre thrown in along the way.

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