Nicholas Hersh couldn't help picking up a baton. It all started in his college student days, back when he thought he was going to be a cellist.
"I found myself disagreeing with the conductors I was playing for," says Hersh, who leads the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Star-Spangled Spectacular this weekend at Oregon Ridge. "I kept thinking how I would do it differently."
The Illinois-born Hersh decided to act on those impulses, taking private conducting lessons and going on to earn a master's degree in conducting at Indiana University. In May 2014, he applied for the post of assistant conductor at the BSO.
"I didn't even expect to get an audition," says the affable, boyish-looking Hersh, who will turn 27 in a few weeks. "Getting invited to audition was the first surprise. A week after the audition, they called me to say I got the job, which was the second, biggest surprise."
At that audition, Hersh conducted works by Beethoven, Brahms, Copland and Gershwin.
"What struck me the most was how immediately the orchestra changed the sound for each, according to what the music demanded," he says. "It's such a sensitive group. And from [music director] Marin [Alsop] to every single member of the orchestra, I have always felt very, very welcome since I started here last August. I like coming to work."
As a member of the conducting staff, Hersh has been on the podium for various BSO educational and outreach programs in Baltimore, concerts in Frederick and more.
In February, he made his unexpected subscription concert debut, stepping in for an ailing Yan Pascal Tortelier on short notice. Hersh received high marks for that effort, especially for his decision not to change the program, which included a rarity — Tortelier's orchestration of a chamber piece by Ravel ("It drove me sleepless for a couple of nights, but I wanted to make sure that gorgeous arrangement was heard," he says).
During this summer's Artscape, Hersh will lead a couple of concerts featuring the BSO and members of the BSO Academy for amateur players.
Next season, the BSO's centennial, Hersh will conduct a presentation of the film "Home Alone" with the orchestra performing the soundtrack live. He'll also be involved with a new concert series showcasing BSO players and indie rock bands. And, as was the case last season, he'll continue to serve as "cover conductor" (the orchestra world's equivalent of understudy) for just about every BSO program.
"He's one of the most talented young conductors I've worked with," says BSO concertmaster Jonathan Carney. "He has a wonderful set of ears. He expresses himself very well with an orchestra, which can be hard to do when you're young. And he's such a nice guy. He puts the orchestra at ease with him. He's a pure joy to work with."
Growing up in the Chicago area, Hersh got his introduction to classical music from the extensive record collection of his father, Philip Hersh, a Chicago Tribune sports reporter who wrote for the Evening Sun in the 1970s.
(Hersh's Baltimore-born mother, Ann Roberts, an art professor and associate dean at Lake Forest College in Illinois, earned a degree at the Johns Hopkins University in 1974 as a member of the first full class of undergraduate women there.)
Hersh has drawn inspiration from recordings by such conducting giants as Leonard Bernstein, Georg Solti ("his cycle of Mahler symphonies I'd listen to on 'repeat'"), and Carlos Kleiber ("a magician"). He's also open to a lot of music outside the classical path, which makes him a natural for the BSO's Fourth of July celebration.
In addition to the American patriotic fare and Tchaikovsky's evergreen "1812 Overture," there will be selections from opera, Broadway and jazz (featuring vocalist Jacqueline Echols), as well as music from popular film scores.
"My personal highlight is going to be my arrangement of Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody,'" Hersh says. "The video I did [in 2013] with an orchestra at Indiana University is a minor YouTube hit."
Not so minor — a combined total of 425,000 views for two videos (one live, one studio). The richly textured arrangement of that rock ballad and the expressive conducting of it provide ample evidence that Hersh is a talent to watch.