Columbia University’s College of Physicians & Surgeons would no doubt enjoy a concert by pianist Fred Hersch. On March 2, when The Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University presents the New York City premiere of “My Coma Dreams“—Hersch’s extraordinary music-and-theater piece based on his experience of surviving a two-month medically induced coma—something more than cultural enrichment will occur. Hersch’s performance should serve as an offering of both gratitude and instruction to those who saved him.
By 2008, Fred Hersch was at the top rank of jazz pianists by anyone’s estimation: his gigs, solo and in a variety of contexts, were required listening in New York, and his influence on a generation of players clear. His surprising career resurgence after he emerged from that coma in 2008, the result of pneumonia run rampant, has been a wondrous. Just a month out of a rehabilitation clinic, in October 2008, he was playing piano, however tentatively, at Smalls in Greenwich Village. By January 2009, he led a quintet with confidence at the Village Vanguard. His recent recordings—including last year’s wonderful trio date “Alive at the Vanguard,” suggest something beyond recovery; he sounds agile as ever, and somehow freer.
“People tell me that my playing is somehow deeper now since my recovery,” he said during an interview for this 2010 Wall Street Journal profile. “I can’t judge whether that’s true or not. But I’ve always been determined to be my own man at the piano. And now, I feel even more of a desire to just be Fred.”
Beyond a deepened sense of musical purpose, Hersch’s near-death episode left him with compelling images: Eight specific dreams—some disturbing, others lovely, one focused on Thelonious Monk, whose music has long been a fixture within his repertoire. In collaboration with writer/director Herschel Garfein, Hersch turned those images into “My Coma Dreams,” a 90-production that blends his music with theatrical interpretations of his dreams and experiences, supported throughout by video projections. A single actor and singer, Michael Winther, plays both Hersch and his domestic partner, Scott Morgan.
“My Coma Dreams” was commissioned by New Jersey’s Peak Performances and premiered at Montclair State University’s Alexander Kasser Theater in 2011. It is a remarkable and touching work, by turns alarming and funny, tense and tender, showcasing equally Hersch’s deep love of, say, Thelonious Monk’s music, and his deeply loving relationship with his partner.
From the start, “My Coma Dreams” has held special appeal for medical professionals. After a performance in Berlin, for the European Society of Intensive Care Medicine, Hersch told me, “More than one doctor came up to me afterward to say, ‘This piece is going to change the way I practice medicine.’” The doctors were especially moved by depictions of Mr. Morgan’s point of view. The separate experiences of patient and loved one form one duality wrapped into Mr. Winther’s double roles, which he delineates with grace.
Dr. Rita Charon, executive director of Columbia’s Program in Narrative Medicine, explained, “As a physician and educator, I believe that this production cuts right to the core of representation and what it means to be a patient, a doctor, a caregiver—to be human.” According to Scott Alderman, who is administrative director, the Program in Narrative Medicine intends for physicians and clinicians “to better understand the people that they’re serving, and their role. The arts, and storytelling in particular, are especially valuable to that end. Fred’s story works toward that goal on several different levels at once.”
The production has long deserved a New York City premiere. Alderman expects the audience at Columbia’s Miller Theater to include clinicians and musicians, side by side, along with medical students and jazz fans. What they’ll see is a dreamworld set to music that relates some deep truths and stark realities. Here’s how I closed my 2011 Wall Street Journal piece on the show:
“My Coma Dreams” leaves off with Mr. Winther, as Mr. Hersch, confronting the lonely, humbling frustrations of rehabilitation. It merely suggests the triumph represented by the real man out of the spotlight, playing piano. The song that opens and closes the show, “The Knitters,” concludes with the line, “We end as we begin.” Mr. Hersch’s life and career, which very well might have ended, didn’t. The luck, love and persistence revealed in that turn of events, and those inscrutable dreams, appear to have fostered a fresh creative start.
Image/ Stephanie Berger