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Fred Hersch: My Coma Dreams at Miller Theater

by Nicholas Fernandez


Photo courtesy of MyComaDreams.com

Fred Hersch mixed jazz, musical theater, and visual art into a coherent, moving retelling of his two-month, medically induced coma Saturday at Columbia University's Miller Theater.

The presentation—the New York City premiere—was sponsored by Columbia University's Program in Narrative Medicine, a fitting pairing given Hersch's ambitious intentions. My Coma Dreams takes the audience on a thrilling trip into the mind of a man separated from the world. His dreams become his only reality, and when he awakes months later he is unfamiliar with his life and even his own body. Meanwhile, his partner, Scott, undergoes the entire saga fully conscious of every fleeting bit of hope and slow march toward deterioration Hersch's body undergoes.

Hersch brings this experience to life with music that spans the gamut from atonal, free jazz to trance-inducing minimalism to Broadway show tunes. With smooth transitions, the work never feels disjointed. Instead, the multiple styles work to express the wide range of emotions present in any life story.

The eleven-piece orchestra treated Hersch's music with care; their subtle, touching performance reflected the work's somber subject matter. Hersch avoided jam-session style solos in favor of carefully integrated improvisations, and the musicians respected this approach by using the space provided to them to comment thoughtfully on the surrounding music.

My Coma Dreams is as much a play as it is a song cycle, and even with extended instrumental musical numbers the story line and narrator/vocalist Michael Winther remained the focus of the show. Winther seamlessly transitioned between roles of Hersch, Scott, Hersch's doctor, and many other side characters. His show tune training was occasionally a less than ideal match for the mood of the work, but was largely an asset, making the harmonically advanced songs instantly accessible.

Hersch aimed to make the 90-minute presentation a complete "jazz theater," which, according to his website, is "theater propelled by music, words, song, and images in fluid and ever-changing combinations." And it is in the last aspect where My Coma Dreams fell short. The visual contributions—a constant stream of images playing on a screen behind the musicians—failed to meet the high standards set by Hersch and the performers. At times the abstract imagery added to the feeling that the audience was experiencing a dream, but for the most part the images lacked the sophistication of the score and the emotional depth of the story. Other times, the visuals distracted from the music by presenting exposition during improvisations.

Regardless, Hersch's goals and the realization of them provide an excellent model for a sustainable future for artistic musical theater by seamlessly integrating styles and media into a sophisticated, accessible, poignant, and funny show. It is a blueprint for future projects that seek to combine jazz and theatrical elements.

My Coma Dreams is daring and beautiful. Hersch, a self-labeled private person, lets the audience witness his humanity, fragility, and eventually, his overwhelming strength.