To read all of the interviews in our “questions with” series, go here.
I spoke to Bob Bernhardt just after he flew into a rainy Portland, Oregon from the East coast, where it also happened to be raining. The dreary weather didn’t seem to dampen his mood, however, as he graciously laid out the perks of his job. He was so emphatic that it almost made me start to question my own career path.
“The best part for me is that I grew up listening to all kinds of music,” he explains. “Popular, classical, everything, and I have had the opportunity in my career – it’s been now 30 years, I’m only 36, that’s amazing – I’ve done opera, I’ve done symphony, I’ve done ballet, I’ve done children’s concerts, I’ve done Pops from the very beginning of my career, which for me has been extremely fulfilling and what I call, in the best possible meaning of the term, I’m a generalist. I’ve rarely met music that I don’t love.”
As the conductor of both the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera, as well as the Louisville Orchestra, Bernhardt spends his time traveling from stage to stage with his wife Nora. He will be steering the Dallas Symphony Orchestra for a string of shows celebrating the work of legendary film composers John Williams and Arthur Fiedler this weekend at Meyerson Symphony Center, with a special matinee show for the family on Sunday.
FrontRow: What is the best concert and the worst concert you have ever been to?
Bob Bernhardt: One of the best concerts I’ve ever been to was just last October with John Williams conducting the Atlanta Symphony and Steven Spielberg narrating. That was just so much unbelievable brilliance on the stage, including a great orchestra and just hearing them talk about their careers together. Hearing the music from Jaws and Schindler’s List and Indiana Jones and knowing that those were the two guys that put it all together was just really awe-inspiring.
As for the worst, I was at a classical concert where the piano soloist forgot the music four times and had to stop. That’s the worst. They’re going along, the orchestra had to stop, and he had to look at the score. That was a really horrible experience, musically. It’s awkward for everybody, and it’s worst for the pianist because you know they’re trying their best.
FR: What was the first movie you saw in the theaters?
BB: That’s going back to 1904. Oh boy. It might have been the original Parent Trap. I had a huge crush on Hayley Mills. I was just becoming a teen, so that’s when I fell in love with her.
FR: What’s the closest you have ever come to dying?
BB: I had an allergic reaction to – that’s the problem, I’m not sure. Probably food. It was not fun. I was verging on an anaphylactic shock.
FR: If you could choose any decade to live in, which would it be?
BB: This is going to be such a trite answer, but I’m really happy right now. In the past you know how things were fought with potential devastation and triumph, but right now we’re poised in the world for a little bit of each as well, and I remain optimistic that I think we’re going to come out well from all of this. I think right now I’m loving life and my kids are healthy, and I’m very happy and right now is really good.
FR: What was your favorite toy as a kid?
BB: I collected baseball cards and in a very pathetic way, I still do. It’s very, very sad because I’m a 61-year-old adult that’s collecting baseball cards. Isn’t that sad? I tried to play professional baseball, and the sport still remains very important to me. I don’t have a favorite team, I only have favorite players. I just hope that my favorite players don’t end up in jail.
FR: Should the United States adopt a national healthcare system similar to the United Kingdom or Canada?
BB: Really, I have to declare myself? My answer is that I think everyone in America should have access to healthcare. And I don’t think anyone should go bankrupt because they get sick. I don’t know the best answer to what system takes us there, but I know that we can do better and I hope that we will as a nation. That was a politician-evaded answer, but that’s the best I can do right now.
FR: If global warming melted the ice caps covering 90 percent of the known world with water, what city would you hope was spared so you could live there?
BB: (Laughs) I have to tell Nora. [Tells his wife and they both laugh.] Well, see I can’t save my family because everybody’s in different locations. I’m going to say Chattanooga, Tennessee because I live there now and I love it. I lived there because I was a music director there, and I stepped down to part-time. So we don’t have to live there anymore, but we do because we love it. And I guess the point is, is that it’s a big country and there are a lot of wonderful places to live, and I happen to live in one of them. And if you vote for me…no, I’m just kidding.
FR: If you could change one law — make something that is illegal legal, or something legal illegal – what would it be?
BB: This is not a law, but I would change the filibuster rule in the Senate. I would take away the 60 vote requirement and force our leaders to govern, which means compromise.
FR: If you weren’t playing music and had the talent and circumstances to do anything else, what would it be?
BB: It would’ve been fun to play professional baseball, I would’ve enjoyed that for a while. I only got as far as spring training so it would’ve been interesting. The other is, I love journalism. I would’ve been interested working for television news. I would’ve enjoyed that. And probably, I think the number one of those three would be to be an astronomer and be involved in things concerning cosmology, the origins of the universe. That was my minor in college. Isn’t it amazing? Talk about awe-inspiring.
FR: What’s on your playlist right now?
BB: I’m doing a concert with a group called The Canadian Tenors up here in Oregon. So today I’ve been listening to music from boys in orchestra in a variety of styles, everything from “Hallelujah” to “Can’t Help Falling In Love.” It’s everything from music written ten years ago to music written 100 years ago.