Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Reston, Virginia, Hersch was introduced to classical music at the age of 18 by his younger brother Jamie, who showed him a videotape of Georg Solti conducting Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. This "shook me," Hersch has written. "It scrambled everything. That's when I knew that I was to be a composer... My whole life started over at that moment."
He almost immediately began studies at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore. Hersch has stated that "with Morris Cotel - the teacher I spent the most time with during my studies at the Peabody Conservatory - lessons consisted only of week after week coming into the teacher's studio, playing and singing through the latest work at the piano and his saying nothing more than, 'Okay. Fine. See you next week.' He believed that a composer confronting his or herself in this manner would force the composer to look in the mirror seeing, along with the good, all the flaws." Hersch moved on to the Moscow Conservatory, where he worked with Albert Leman and Roman Ledenev, and received a Certificate in Composition in 1995. He also worked with John Corigliano, John Harbison and George Rochberg at a program for young composers in 1995. Hersch then returned to Peabody for graduate studies. He serves on the faculty at Peabody, where he is the Chair of the composition department.
His first success came when Marin Alsop selected Elegy for Strings as winner of the American Composers Prize, and conducted it at Lincoln Center in New York in 1997. That year also saw Hersch win a Guggenheim Fellowship and become a fellow at the prestigious Tanglewood Music Center, where he worked with Christopher Rouse, followed by fellowships at the Norfolk Festival for Contemporary Music and the Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo, Japan in 1998. In 2000 Hersch won the Rome Prize, where he worked with Luciano Berio, and in 2001 the Berlin Prize, where he worked with Hans Werner Henze.
His music increasingly recorded, Vanguard Classics is in the midst of an acclaimed three volume survey of Hersch’s complete music for solo strings. This project comes several years after the 2007 release of Hersch’s, The Vanishing Pavilions, with the composer at the keyboard. Critic David Patrick Stearns of The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote on the premiere of "The Vanishing Pavilions," a work lasting over 2 hours, premiered on October 14, 2006:
Michael Hersch has appeared on the Van Cliburn Foundation’s Modern at the Modern Series, the Romaeuropa Festival, the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., the Festival of Contemporary Music Nuova Consonanza, the Warhol Museum, the Network for New Music Concert Series, the Left Bank Concert Society, the American Academy in Berlin Series, Festa Europea della Musica, St. Louis' Sheldon Concert Hall, and in New York City at Merkin Concert Hall, the 92nd St. Y - Tisch Center for the Performing Arts, and Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, among others.
Michael Hersch's public debut took place in Carnegie Recital Hall in 1999. Also on the program was noted composer Jason Eckardt. Both Hersch and Eckardt had received commissions from Carnegie Hall.
Michael Hersch rarely performs in public, but commands a wide repertoire from Josquin to Boulez. Since 2000 he has primarily focused on performances of his own work.
Elegy for string orchestra (1993)
On Sorrow, Anger and Reflection (1998); premiered by the CBC Vancouver Symphony
Review: Phillip Scott of Fanfare says "It is not difficult to hear why conductors of the caliber of Alsop and Jansons have championed the work of the young American composer Michael Hersch (b. 1971). He writes for orchestra with a sure hand. His Symphony No. 1 in one movement (1998) is indisputably a promising first essay in the genre; over a 27-minute span, the thematic material is developed with subtlety and imagination."
^iClassic.com interview of Hersch on the release of the Vanguard Classics Chamber Music CD in January, 2004.
^(Video) Michael Hersch: The Vanishing Pavilions - Movement No. 6 / Michael Hersch, piano.