Nicholas Hersh joined the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2014 and, along the way, has brought youthful energy and enthusiasm to the organization. We talked to him about how his age affects his work, how to attract younger audiences to the symphony, and how he made the musicians feel like rock stars.
You started your music career as a cellist. How did you end up becoming a conductor?
I started playing the cello in elementary school, and technically, I still play now, though I don’t have as much time to practice. In high school, I was in a youth orchestra called Midwest Young Artists in the north suburbs of Chicago. That got me more interested in the symphony repertoire as I realized how complex and amazing that music was. Though I’d decided that I wanted to go into music professionally with the cello, I bought my first baton senior year of high school on a lark. And one of the great things about the music department [at Stanford University] was that they allowed undergraduate students to dabble in conducting. I took some private lessons, put together groups of friends to conduct, and from there, I really had the bug. I applied for grad school, got into Indiana University, and was there for four years before I auditioned and got this job.
It seems like it would be a big transition going from playing cello to conducting a whole orchestra.
There’s a different mindset, for sure. A lot of conductors in the past were pianists, but in my case as an orchestral cellist, I saw what other conductors did that worked and didn’t work. One of the hardest things to learn how to do as a conductor is rehearse—to learn what things to say to all these professional musicians and what not to say, and what kind of words and gestures work.
Directing seasoned performers must be difficult, especially when you’re 28, as you are.
As an assistant conductor, you’re expected to work at a professional level, and you’re also expected to not know nearly as much as anyone else on the stage. There’s a learning curve, and the mentality for this kind of job has to be one of confidence and also great humility. You have to be able to go up there and do your work, but also to learn what these great musicians have to offer.
And how do you do that?
It’s very hard. The best thing you can do as a conductor is just know the piece you’re conducting so well. It shows that you put in the time, take this really seriously, and can say thoughtful and constructive things to an orchestra so it doesn’t just seem like you’re flailing up there. Orchestras can easily see through a show of bravado. It’s important, too, to be a human being off the podium. I consider myself friendly with a number of the musicians and just having a conversation with them about what it’s like to make music can be incredibly enlightening.
You were 26 when you auditioned for this job. Do you view your age as a benefit or a detriment?
I consider myself very fortunate to be where I am, when I am. This was a great first job out of grad school and this was a huge get for me. From a public relations stand point, there is something exciting for an orchestra about having a young person up there to connect with people of my generation, which is honestly one of the most underrepresented demographics in the concert hall these days. That ties in with what we do with [the concert series] Pulse. As a millennial, I know where a lot of my peers are coming from. I wouldn’t say I’m the most socially aware person, but I’m sort of current on what’s trending, and I can work that in to connect the orchestra to the audience.
How did you get involved with Pulse?
The initial concept was crafted after a meeting with Toby Blumenthal, who at that point was the director of rentals at the Meyerhoff. In his line of work, he had contact with all of the bands that wanted to use our stage, and he came to me and said, ‘It’s a shame that we have all these acts coming through here and we don’t get them an opportunity to perform with the orchestra.’ So we started throwing out ideas about having a concert with both a band and the orchestra doing what they do best and then a collaboration between the two. We wanted to make the Meyerhoff unintimidating, unstuffy. We wanted it to be a really cool, fun, social place to gather and really make it feel less like our grandparents’ orchestra hall and more like the amazing, vibrant cultural hub that the Meyerhoff is and should be. We structured the concert in a way that would seem almost familiar to people who had been to shows before, where the main act comes on second and the orchestra basically opens for them. But it’s much more than that. I choose each piece the orchestra plays incredibly carefully to make sure that there’s some connection between the band and this particular composer. It’s a way of saying, ‘If you like this band, then you’re really going to like this piece of music.’ I guess it’s a ploy in that way to get people interested in orchestral music.
A lot of the orchestral works that you’ve performed at Pulse have been relatively recent compositions.
And that’s intentional. We wanted to make the point that these aren’t composers who died hundreds of years ago, [so people can’t say] ‘Why should we care?’ This is music that’s happening currently, that’s happening within our lifetimes, and it shows that orchestral music is much more than hearing music that’s become associated with a high-class, elitist mentality. It’s much more alive and much more current than what you might think it is.
What are you impressions of Pulse so far?
Overall, Pulse has been extremely successful. We’ve sold it not only to our audiences and to our management, but our musicians as well. I remember one of them walking off stage after the Dr. Dog show and telling me, “This is why rock and rollers do drugs—they want to re-create the high of having thousands of people on their feet, absorbed in every moment of what you’re doing up there.”
Why do you think younger people aren’t connecting with the symphony?
It’s a difficult question. I think a lot of it is that music education skipped a generation or two, and we were the ones who got left out. I was lucky enough to be raised by parents who were more interested in classical music than the norm. But coming through school, there wasn’t nearly as much emphasis on how to listen and experience these great Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, and Mahler pieces. In the same way that you take English class to be able to analyze the Bronte sisters or F. Scott Fitzgerald, you need this music education in order to experience a lot of these high-level pieces. It’s not that you need to be spoon-fed everything—in fact, a lot of pieces work better if they aren’t spoon-fed to you—but having the patience and mindset. That’s what we’ve tried to do at Pulse—give the audience the context that allows them to enjoy these pieces. I remember our first concert last year, [we played] Philip Glass, which is very difficult to listen to. I remember that audience being one of the most attentive and pin-drop-silent audiences that I’ve ever experienced. There’s something to be said for re-contextualization, for giving people the means to experience these monumental testaments to human ingenuity.
Is a lack of younger audiences the biggest issue the symphony is facing right now?
What we’re lacking right now are audiences, especially diverse audiences in terms of race, ethnicity, and age. For me, in an ideal situation, an orchestra, and really any cultural institution, would have the same fan following—the fierce fandom, that sports teams like the Orioles and Ravens have. Because we are a world-class orchestra, we have some of the best players in the world, and people should want to come to every concert and follow the orchestra’s every move —have pride when the orchestra succeeds and weep when the orchestra does not. And in order to get to that level, we have to start thinking differently about the concert experience, we have to experiment. We should also be open to things like allowing cell phones in the hall and be open to what our patrons, our community would want and what would make them want to keep coming back.
Where do you see yourself going in your career?
You can’t be committed to one path, not in my business, anyway. I’m constantly applying for music directorships of professional, regional orchestras, say in a smaller city. That’s a good logical step for me to take. In the end, I like teaching. I think my ideal gig would be one where I would teach at a university level and have the opportunity to work with professionals regularly as well. I love traveling, and conductors have an opportunity to do that when they reach a certain level. I want to travel the world doing what I love—bringing the music I make to different parts of the world and experiencing the music they make and learning from that. That’s the dream. It’s a hard job, and it can be hard to get a job like this, but in the end musicians and conductors have some of the highest job satisfaction. You’re doing what you love constantly, and each performance is new and fresh. That keeps your soul in a good place.