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Interview: Bob Bernhardt, GRS Principal Pops Conductor

GRSMA has had the pleasure of working with conductor Bob Bernhardt now for many seasons. We finally had the chance to sit down with Bob to discuss his ball-playing past, his love for the music of John Williams, and when we can expect to see him compete on the popular television show 'Jeopardy'. 

GRSMA: Off the bat, we have to ask about your career in sports. Are there any similarities between playing professional baseball and conducting an orchestra?

Bob Bernhardt: I have long said that everything I needed to know about conducting an orchestra I learned in Little League. I’m lying, of course, but only partially. 

First, I’d like to clarify my sports bio, in case I ever decide to run for office, which will never happen. Baseball was my passion from age 5 or 6, and soccer joined that in my early teens. I played four years of soccer (fall) and baseball (spring) throughout high school and college (Union College - Schenectady, NY - was Division 2 at the time). I was captain of the soccer team and was an Academic All-American at third base in my senior year. 

I made it to spring training with the Kansas City Royals in February of 1974 (George Brett’s rookie season, for those of you keeping score) and lasted a few days. They suggested a career in music, which is also a lie, but a good lie, I think. It was after that dismissal that I went to grad school at USC, got my Masters in Instrumental Conducting, and the rest is hysterical, I mean, history. 

And now, finally, back to your question. I grew up playing team sports, and in so doing, learned early on that one’s skills and gifts as an athlete/teammate are important to the success of the team, but the team is only as good as the sum of its parts. In other words, I learned about being a part of something larger and more important than myself, and I apologize for how trite that sounds.

To make this segment even longer and more tortured, I once put together a concert in Louisville called something like “Music and Sports” and, as part of it, paid tribute to the University of Louisville Cardinal basketball team (Denny Crum, head coach) and football team (Howard Schnellenberger, head coach). Coach Schnellenberger actually showed up at our rehearsal and afterwards said this to me, in paraphrase: “What you do is just about exactly what I do -- I take a bunch of talented players and try to organize and motivate them in a united purpose.” So, yes, I learned a lot playing team sports that applies to my current job. Will all my answers be this long?

GRSMA: No worries, Bob! Where did you grow up, and what are your first memories of classical music?

BB: I grew up in Rochester, New York, where my father worked for Eastman Kodak for more than 40 years. My first memories of classical music were: 

-my parents bought a classical LP each week from the grocery store (spend so much on groceries, get the album for $1, or something like that).

-my first piano teacher, Maryanne Hargrave, who lived on the street behind ours; she was wonderful, listened to what interested me, turned me on to my first musical passion (which was J. S. Bach), and was incredibly patient with me when I showed up with a broken finger from sports (which happened twice) -- upon seeing the splint, she said, “See you in six weeks.”

-going to the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra’s youth concerts at the Eastman Theater, sitting beneath the huge chandelier, loving the music and hoping that the chandelier wouldn’t fall.

-seeing Isaac Stern and Jack Benny play the Bach “Double” Violin Concerto with the New York Philharmonic on TV for a fundraiser. I could go on …

GRSMA: Besides your work with us in Grand Rapids, you actually live near Chattanooga and conduct in Louisville. How tricky is it to make so many puzzle pieces fit together?

BB: Did I mention that I believe in the ‘team’? Right now I have posts with three orchestras and am lucky to do additional guest conducting opportunities from time to time. This only works because of the professionalism and kindness and camaraderie among the artistic administrators and operations people on the staff of these companies. 

I try to find out the dates for the following season’s Pops series as soon as I can from each orchestra, see where there are conflicts, and work with the staff to try to move a date, if at all possible, to accommodate the conflict. It sort of takes a village, and I’m lucky to have one. My fantastic agent is sometimes involved in this as well, and she’s incredibly helpful. 

GRSMA: You tell our Pops audiences that you only program pieces that you like, and we have noticed the frequency that the music of John Williams appears on your GRS Pops concerts. What draws you to the music of this treasured American composer, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday?

BB: He’ll be 91 in February. You ask a simple question here, but the answer is wonderfully complicated, or maybe it’s just simple. My love of his music goes hand in hand with my love for the man. 

Bob Bernhardt and John Williams, then and now

Rather than tell you that story, let me tell you this one regarding John’s place, and his music’s place, in our society. My best male friend told me of his first scuba diving lesson in Hawaii in the very early 1980s. The instructor was a native Hawaiian scuba master. Just before the group’s first solo dives, one of the students asked, “But what if there are sharks?” Without missing a beat, the instructor said, “Not to worry. If a shark comes close, you’ll hear the music first.”

GRSMA: You also tell our Pops audiences that some of the trivia that you mention to them may come in handy if they compete on ‘Jeopardy’. When can we expect to see you on this show?

BB: Let me see. How about never? I’ll take “never” for $800, Alex. While I do know a lot of information, most of it is stuff no one needs or maybe even wants to know, pretty sure. And I’m not really that great at ‘Jeopardy’ at home. I can’t imagine the intensity of the real thing…

GRSMA: Let’s say that you are hosting a dinner party and could invite three famous musicians, living or dead. And let’s pretend that John Williams isn’t available that evening! Who else would be on the guest list?

BB: How about three of each? Dead: Mahler, Brahms, and Mozart. And I would definitely just listen. Living: Manny Ax, Yo-Yo Ma, and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. And ditto. 

GRSMA: Do you have any special places where you prefer to study your scores?

BB: I’m pretty flexible about that. Just a flat surface with good light, a comfortable chair, good pencils with good erasers, and quiet.

Not the answer to the question you asked, but I’ve often been asked how I prepare just before a concert. And having had kids, thank God, my answer would sometimes be: One goes to soccer practice, the other to the cello lesson, then home for dinner and then I drive to the hall. 

GRSMA: Do you have any hobbies or activities that you enjoy?

BB: The ex-jock in me loves to play golf. Not a team sport, but one in which you have no one else to blame, and I like that. Also, being like a 12-year-old child, I still collect baseball cards and some memorabilia. My wife Nora and I love to walk, laugh together, and travel some, and now with three grandkids and another on the way, try to find more time to be with them.

Bob and his wife Nora

GRSMA: What are the most memorable moments that you have experienced as a conductor, either in concert or a rehearsal?

BB: There are so many, and please know how lucky I know I am to be able to write that. 

On the “memorable” side is conducting a ‘Carmen’ when, in Act II, Don Jose, just out of military prison, returns to Carmen and forgot to finish dressing…which is to say that his fly was down for about two minutes, completely obvious to the audience and to me, but not to him or Carmen. And let me further say that two minutes of stage time is about six months in real life.

When she finally realized what the audience murmur was about, so did he. He zipped up, to enormous audience applause. We stopped and I said something like “Let’s go back to Letter E, shall we?” I love telling that story just because it tells the truth about opera – it’s the most human art form of all.

The deepest moment was having to conduct the Mahler “Resurrection” Symphony the evening of the same day my closest high school friend took his own life. Through that experience, I realized yet again how lucky I was, and am, to have music in me, and with me, on this journey. Mahler helped me to grieve, and to cherish the strength of the bond of loving friendship. 

GRSMA: You can catch Bob in action this season with the GRS on these upcoming Pops and Symphony Specials series concerts.

Pops Knockouts with Caroline Campbell (

Cirque Musica: Rhapsody (

Brass Transit: The Musical Legacy of Chicago (

Prohibition: The Rise of the Jazz Age (

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