Inside Track: New symphony conductor thinks Grand Rapids pops
Bob Bernhardt, who also has roles with the Louisville and Chattanooga symphonies, was drawn to GR by its vibrant atmosphere.
Grand Rapids Symphony goers will recognize the organization’s new principal pops conductor when the 2015-2016 season begins later this year.
Bob Bernhardt first came to Grand Rapids in September 2013, when he conducted the Boston Pops Tribute Show, one of his favorite shows to conduct.
His visit was during ArtPrize and he said he was amazed by the vibrancy of the city.
“The city was ablaze, alive,” he said. “There were thousands of students downtown — the place was teeming. It was glorious.”
He also had a terrific experience with the orchestra, the symphony staff and the audience.
“The symphony organization seemed to be rock solid,” he said. “You can tell a lot about a place by the way people are communicating. I had a lovely time. I enjoyed my relationship with the audience — they even laughed at my jokes.”
The Grand Rapids Symphony liked Bernhardt, too.
“They invited me back for this season. I’m coming back in March,” he said. “But I had no idea they were looking for a principal pops conductor.”
So he was completely surprised when he got a call just a couple of months shy of the end of 2014 asking about his interest in joining the Grand Rapids Symphony.
As principal pops conductor, Bernhardt will help shape the orchestra’s Fox Motors Pops series, Nestle Gerber SymphonicBoom series and D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops series. And, he will be atop the podium for several of those concerts leading the orchestra.
It’s still a little early to say what the 2015-2016 pops concerts will look like, but Bernhardt doesn’t lack for possibilities and seems excited about how the planning process with the symphony staff is going.
In addition to his role with Grand Rapids Symphony, Bernhardt is in his 18th season as the principal pops conductor of the Louisville Orchestra; he’s been with the organization for a total of 33 years. He’s also in his third season as music director emeritus and principal pops conductor of the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera; he served as the music director there for 19 seasons.
He also serves as artist-in-residence at Lee University, in Cleveland, Tenn., a position he’s held since 2012.
Surprisingly, Bernhardt did not go to college intent on earning a music degree. Instead, he’d planned on graduating with a degree in mathematics, but he said he soon realized math was not going to provide a creative outlet and he ended up graduating from Union College, in Schenectady, N.Y., with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and a minor in astronomy.
He’d been interested in music from a young age, he said, taking piano lessons as a child and splitting his extracurricular time in high school and college between music and sports — he played baseball and soccer.
Bernhardt said the two biggest musical influences on him during that time were Bach and The Beatles.
“There were two lightening strikes,” he said. “When I was 9, it was the music of Bach, and the other was The Beatles when I was 13. Those were the two riveting events.”
By college he was playing piano and guitar.
But while in college, he said he realized he wasn’t going to succeed as a solo pianist and began looking for alternative careers in the music world, which led him to conducting.
“Senior year, I begged enough that they allowed me to conduct the student orchestra,” he said. “That moment, my musical self and athletic self met.”
It would be another year, however, before Bernhardt pursued his conducting degree.
In the meantime, he spent a year working for a daily newspaper, where he was asked to cover arts and entertainment, including the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.
Bernhardt made friends with Associate Conductor Isaiah Jackson, a world-renowned African-American conductor, and the two found they could help each other.
“Isaiah had never done anything athletic in his life, and he asked me if I would teach him how to play squash and he would give me conducting lessons,” said Bernhardt.
Jackson also introduced Bernhardt to Daniel Lewis, who was a teacher at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
“I went out there and got my degree in conducting,” he said.
The lucky breaks kept coming.
With degree in hand, Bernhardt was asked to join P.D.Q. Bach — satirist performer Peter Schickele — for a few performances at Carnegie Hall. The two had met when P.D.Q. visited USC.
“That was my first real job and first time I’d set foot in Carnegie Hall,” Bernhardt said.
He then moved on to a position with the University of Alabama, conducting the orchestra and serving as a professor of music.
A dinner he didn’t even attend helped him land his first job with the Louisville Orchestra, where he remains today.
“I had friends on tour in Austin, Texas. The conductor of the Austin Symphony had just gotten the job in Louisville, and he took (his friends) out to dinner and said, ‘Do you know a young conductor who could use a break,’ and my friends mentioned my name.
“I got my job because of a dinner that was held in Austin, Texas. That’s the way the world works.”
Bernhardt said it was important to him to have a steady position with an orchestra— one that let him call one place home and provided him and his family with some stability.
Most of his time with the Louisville Orchestra has included posts in other places, as well. He’s held five music directorships and has guest conducted throughout the country.
This season marks his 22nd as a frequent guest of the Boston Pops Orchestra, which he first conducted in 1992 at the invitation of John Williams, who was the principal conductor at the time. An admirer of Williams’ vast work as a composer of music for films, the invitation has been one of the highlights of Bernhardt’s career.
Bernhardt said he loves pops concerts because they allow him to develop a relationship with the audience.
In addition to working with fabulous orchestras across the country, Bernhardt has worked with celebrities, as many symphonies pair their orchestras with well-known performers to help sustain attendance levels and draw in a younger audience. He’s worked with Jason Alexander, Indigo Girls, Matthew Morrison, Ben Folds and The Beach Boys.
He expects symphonies will continue partnering with well-known artists as a way to combat changes within the audience and music business, but he said the concerns about the health of symphony organizations have been around for his entire career — and yet, the music continues.
When Bernhardt comes to Grand Rapids in March, he will work with two Broadway stars — Lisa Vroman and Michigan native Doug LaBrecque — on three The Best of Broadway concerts. The show will cover hits from George Gershwin, Marvin Hamlisch, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cole Porter and others.
In his post with the Grand Rapids Symphony, part of his job will be to help draw a wide audience to the shows.
“For me it’s important that I listen,” he said. “I don’t believe I have the formula right now that will attract the most people, but I’m motivated to find out what works and what doesn’t work.”
Bernhardt is looking forward to spending more time in Grand Rapids in the year ahead, but said he’s been warned not to expect the same hustle and bustle that accompanies ArtPrize during the rest of the year.