Salieri didn’t do it.
Nicholas Hersh, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s associate conductor, will conduct the orchestra’s Movie With Orchestra presentation of “Amadeus,” the 1984 Milos Forman film that depicts the life of the Viennese composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as seen through the eyes of his contemporary, the Italian composer Antonio Salieri.
Hersh wants his audiences to know that while Salieri’s extraordinary end-of-life confession — that he goaded Mozart to the grave and tried to steal his greatest work — may form the movie’s backbone, it’s undoubtedly just a bit of fictional creative license.
“The story itself is apocryphal,” said the conductor, who will lead the BSO in a live performance of the movie’s magically stripped-away musical score as the film plays out on the stage of the Music Center at Strathmore. “But that doesn’t make it any less a good story.”
Indeed, the story of Mozart reflected through the eyes of a jealous rival is such a good one that it remains a classic 35 years after its release: an epic film adapted from Peter Shaffer’s stage play that became a critical and box-office success and swept the 1985 Academy Awards. While Hersh, 31, wasn’t born when “Amadeus” introduced the world to its brilliant, boyish, giggly goofball of a protagonist, played by Tom Hulce, he’s happy to share Mozart’s music, and the movie, in a whole new way.
“My dad always had classical music going in the house, especially opera,” said Hersh, who grew up in Evanston, Illinois, and remembers going to the Lyric Opera of Chicago with his family. “I think that must have instilled something in me.”
With an uncle who’s a musicologist and a cousin who’s a professional cellist, Hersh played cello as a youngster, but knew at an early age that he wanted to conduct. He earned a bachelor’s degree in music from Stanford University and a master’s degree in conducting from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, studying with David Effron and Arthur Fagen.
And while Hersh, 31, admitted he’s “on the young side” for a conductor, he noted that, “There are young conductors out there, certainly. But conducting is one of those things that you really get better at as you get older, primarily by experience. The older you are, the wiser you become.
“The progress I’ve made is pretty standard,” he added, then laughed. “From here, it’s a twisting and unknown path.”
Like Hersh, pianist Lura Johnson has a good sense of humor — which comes in handy when performing the score to a good-humored biographical drama like “Amadeus.” She also has a sense of physical grace, which makes her a particularly interesting pianist to watch.
“I have always had a really physical response to music,” said Johnson. “I think my dancing and my musicianship are related.” The dedicated West Coast swing dancer noted that people watching her at the piano often remark that it looks like she’s dancing as she plays.
“I am very animated,” she admitted. “As a kid, I took gymnastics and I loved the events where you could dance.” She set her gymnastics routines to pieces she was learning, but nothing came before piano.
Even within her musical family — her mom is a violinist and her dad, a professor of East Asian Studies at Oberlin College, was her first piano teacher — Johnson was a standout, destined for a professional performance career. She grew up in Oberlin, Ohio, where even now, the family continues its tradition of playing music together at the local nursing home, and earned bachelor and master of music degrees at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music before landing in Baltimore, where she’s a Steinway Artist, principal keyboardist with the Delaware Symphony Orchestra and an adjunct faculty member at the Peabody Institute, as well as the BSO’s regular guest pianist.
Johnson, 46, believes she first saw “Amadeus” as a child on an extended visit to London. But she said that her fascination with the film’s ability to enchant even casual music lovers dates back to an early teaching job at Baltimore’s Loyola University, where she taught a basic music class called Music Fundamentals.
“There were two movie scenes that I made my students watch,” the pianist recalled, noting that the first was from “Philadelphia,” in which Tom Hanks’ character narrated an opera scene that moved him to tears. “And the scene from ‘Amadeus,’” she added, “where Salieri comes into a room where Mozart is conducting, walks up to the music stand, looks at the notes and hears the music in his head — as musicians can, in a way that’s often quite mysterious to non-musicians.”
What follows, she said, is Salieri’s description of “Serenade for Winds” — and Mozart’s genius — which starts, “On the page it looked simple, almost comic!” and goes on to describe the single note of the oboe as it floats, unwavering, until a clarinet takes it over.
“And it’s playing while he’s describing it,” said Johnson. “It’s one of those unbelievable scenes that helps people who don’t understand classical music, helps them ‘get it.’
“It’s really powerful,” she added. “It’s almost like a sportscaster giving a play-by-play: It provides an access point for those that love the music already, and those who don’t know they love it yet.”
For Hersh, it not just a great access point for the audience, it’s the perfect setup for an orchestra to flex its musical muscles.
“Of any movie to show with a live orchestra, ‘Amadeus’ seems like the logical choice,” he observed. “The pieces by Mozart are very much within the orchestral repertoire: something orchestras do very well, and the BSO will do extraordinarily.
“The way the music is incorporated into the narrative is ideal,” he added. “It really is such a great film.”
And while he and the members of the orchestra are focused completely on the music, they do get to enjoy the drama, comedy and fun of the movie itself in between musical interludes. As conductor, Hersh points out, “I have one of the best seats in the house.”
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presents “Movie with Orchestra: Amadeus” at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 4 at the Music Center at Strathmore,5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Tickets start at $35. Call 877-276-1444 or visit www.bsomusic.org/calendar/events/2019-2020-events/movie-with-orchestra-amadeus/