Composer Michael Hersch Wins $250,000 President’s Frontier Award

By Jill Rosen – January 31st 2017

Michael Hersch’s work end stages was commissioned by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and was premiered in early January, 2017.


Johns Hopkins Peabody Institute composer and pianist Michael Hersch, whose groundbreaking work has been performed worldwide, has won the university’s 2017 President’s Frontier Award, an honor that comes with $250,000 for research and innovation.

Hersch, who The New Yorker recently called “one of the most prominent composers in the country,” was surprised with the award this morning.

“This will be transformative,” he said. “I will be able to do things that were just simply not conceivable without the kind of support that this will allow.”

A Peabody alumnus, Hersch started winning top awards for musical composition before turning 30, including the Concordia American Composers Awards and the Guggenheim Fellowship in Music Composition. He has taught at Peabody since 2006 and leads the composition department, even as his international reputation has been building, with numerous recordings being released and major orchestras, chamber ensembles, and soloists commissioning and performing his works.

Music critics have called him an important and prominent composer, a startling talent, and a unique voice. The Washington Post said he is “a natural musical genius who continues to surpass himself.” Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Music Director Marin Alsop told the St. Louis Post Dispatch that Hersch is “a prodigy of immense proportions.” The New York Times called one of his works, “a pianistic masterpiece I would unhesitatingly place alongside those of Bach and Liszt.”

“His peers and the press describe Michael as one of the most prominent composers in the country, an uncommon talent, and a unique voice in American music,” said university President Ronald J. Daniels. “The provost and I are excited to recognize Michael as he nurtures his impressive talent and continues to increase his stature in the classical music world.”

Hersch said the award would have a “monumental” impact on his work, giving him time and freedom to focus on creating music and preparing it for performance, “free from financial worry.” The award, he said, would allow him to “fulfill creative visions currently residing only in my imagination.”

Hersch planned to use the award to explore the intersection of music composition with other expressive art forms including, poetry, literature, painting and photography, and to work on larger pieces.

He also said that the opportunity to receive significant funding support is “all to rarely afforded artists of any kind in the United States. … An award of this size holds astonishing possibilities for any American involved in the arts today, especially those involved in music composition.”

Hersch’s first opera, On the Threshold of Winter, will be performed in several U.S. cities this year and will be released as a film in the fall. That piece, performed with an eight-piece ensemble and a soprano singer, incorporates text from Romanian poet Marin Sorescu’s book-length poem The Bridge, which was written during the author’s final two months of living with cancer. Hersch also has a commission premiering with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in February, and additional premieres planned this year in the Netherlands, Berlin and Vienna.

“There is no doubt that Mr. Hersch is one of the most gifted composers today, as evidenced by his artistic output, accolades and awards,” said Peabody Dean Fred Bronstein. “Given the immensity of his talent, his productivity, and his every increasing stature in the classical music world, I can think of no one more deserving of the President’s Frontier Award.”

The Frontier Award, now in its third year, was created through a donation from university trustee Louis J. Forster and alumna Kathleen M. Pike. It recognizes one person a year for five years, focusing on those who are poised to break new ground and be leaders in their fields.

Previous winners were engineer Sharon Gerecht and biologist Scott Bailey.

This year, finalist Xin Chen, an associate professor of biology in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, is also being recognized as an outstanding finalist with a presidential monetary gift of $50,000 to support her research and academic pursuits.