PITTSBURGH — To HBO streamers, he’s the Bert, the out-of-touch, rascally grandfather on the comedy-drama murder mystery “White Lotus.” To Marvel’s followers, he’s the voice of the Egyptian god Khonshu in the Disney+ show “Moon Knight,” a massive, masked figure realized with CGI. To crime drama enthusiasts, he’s Omar in the 1983 film “Scarface.”
To classical music fans, he’s Salieri, Mozart’s rival composer and nemesis in the film “Amadeus,” a role that won F. Murray Abraham an Oscar in 1985 and kickstarted a lifelong interest in classical music.
As the film’s narrator, Salieri is a talented but inferior composer, forced to watch idly as Mozart eclipses him. But Abraham, born in Pittsburgh’s Hill District to a family of steel and mill workers, doesn’t see Salieri as the “bad guy” — “imagine being compared to Mozart, for God’s sake!” he exclaimed in a phone conversation.
This week, Murray, 83, returns to the Steel City to appear with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, when music director Manfred Honeck leads the orchestra in Mozart’s “Requiem,” his final — unfinished — composition. Tickets and details are available at pittsburghsymphony.org.
For these performances, Honeck has added readings to accompany the music, a variety of biblical texts, letters from Mozart to his father and poetry.
And who better to lend voice to these readings than Salieri himself?
The following conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Q. Thanks so much for speaking with us. I’ve always heard a musical quality in your voice — is that a conscious choice?
A. It’s instinctive. I find the music in the words themselves if it’s a good script, and I do “score” the breathing, actually. It becomes a musical piece for me, though I wouldn’t say it’s conscious. No, there’s more of an instinct? I don’t know what exactly a line is supposed to sound like when I first read it, but I know it when I hear it. It’s an essential element in my work.
For these concerts I’m reading the Bible — that’s a terrific, exciting thing. It’s such an important, great work of literature. To perform it rather than sit quietly in the church and listen, it’s just ... magical.
Q. Where did your experience with music come from?
A. It’s amazing what the power of films will do. People thought I really knew something about music when “Amadeus” came out! No, I never played an instrument, though I actually did have to learn to play the piano for those few things in “Amadeus.” Milos (the director) insisted we hit all the right keys, even though those pianos were phony, of course.
I studied and listened to the same Mozart pieces of music over and over again. I’m what they called a “serious” actor, and I like to be extremely thorough. My relationship with orchestras came out of that film.
Q. And how did Mozart’s music strike you?
A. It hit me that no matter how many times I listened to the same music, it was still good. That’s an amazing thing, it’s like a play that’s lasted more than 200 or 300 years. It lives, and it lasts because it still communicates. That’s what I discovered.
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Q. Is that what led you to working with orchestras?
A. That, and it’s such a thrill to be in the middle of an orchestra. There’s nothing like it. I’ve recited with quite a few really great conductors. I always ask the maestro if I can sit in the middle of an orchestra and just listen. Really, there’s nothing else like it.
Q. Any memorable first encounters with composers or conductors?
A. Well, even before “Amadeus,” when I went to Los Angeles to seek my fortune, I worked backstage at UCLA’s concert hall, setting up chairs. And I remember seeing Stravinsky! It was an amazing thing for me, even though I may not quite have appreciated it at the time.
Igor was pretty frail, he would hold onto the rail of the podium during rehearsals. At concert time, though, he’d take a jolt out of a flask — I wasn’t privileged enough to know what was in it — and pop upright and head out onstage. What a force, he was.
Q. You’ll be teaching a masterclass at Carnegie Mellon University while you’re here, correct?
A. Yes indeed. I teach from time to time. People tell me it’s very generous, but in fact it’s selfish. If you don’t watch out, you get really full of yourself. When you teach a class, these kids are not afraid to speak up. It helps keep perspective.
This generation has so much electronic stuff at their fingertips. There were no home cameras when I was starting out, they were too expensive. I developed my film technique by rewatching my commercials and soap opera appearances... now you can do that with your telephone. That’s what these people are doing, it’s all testing and looking at themselves and grooming. They don’t have to do any vocal work, really. They don’t have to worry about any more than what they will look like... it has become a small idea of acting.
Q. How so?
A. It’s become all about a sort of naturalism, or realism. It has nothing to do with the imagination or the size of an emotion. The theater insists on that size and large-scale scope — there, you can disagree with God! You can’t do that on camera without looking completely ridiculous.
And that’s infected the writing profession as well. Everyone writes with the screen in mind now. The greatness of literature overall has deteriorated, I think. There’s a flatness and shallowness about work today that’s disappointing. Today, the art world is just disgusting; it’s ridiculous! I don’t want to see people carving up sharks or throwing their shoes at the wall, that isn’t art, to me.
Q. You’ve said you quite liked the writing in “White Lotus,” though.
A. Ah yes, that was fun, man. They invited me, and it wasn’t long before I said “absolutely, yes.” I don’t know if it will become a classic, but it’s very good writing, good or better than many of the films I’ve seen lately.
Then again, people tell me now they like me in “White Lotus” but that I was better in “Amadeus.” The actor’s life is a gypsy life. I’m having a good time, what can I say.
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