Bob Bernhardt begins his 25th year of working with the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera this fall, one of many milestones in his career.
During the last quarter century, he has been affiliated with at least one other and many times at least two other symphonies around the country. It's not unusual for composers to work with multiple symphonies — he is in his 36th year with the Louisville Orchestra in Kentucky, for example.
In addition to being the principal pops conductor and music director emeritus with the CSO, he is principal pops conductor of the Grand Rapids Symphony in Michigan and was the music director and conductor of the Tucson Symphony in Arizona and principal conductor and artistic director of the Rochester Philharmonic in New York. He is a Rochester native.
Through it all, Chattanooga and the CSO have remained close to his heart, and he says there are a couple of simple reasons why he has made the city his home and why he plans and hopes to remain here.
"What was the deciding factor for me is that I was appreciated, and my work was largely appreciated," he says. "I was wanted here."
It also helps that his second wife, Nora, likes it here.
"Nora loves it here as much as I do," he says.
The CSO opens its 2017-18 season on Thursday with "Mahler 1 — The Titan" with Music Director Kayoko Dan conducting. Bernhardt will conduct the first pops concert of the season on Oct. 7 when the CSO presents "Music City Hitmakers."
In many ways, the show is representative of what Bernhardt has tried to do during his tenure here. The CSO will be joined by two award-winning, Nashville-based songwriters in Brett James ("I Hold On," "Jesus Take the Wheel," "Mr. Know It All") and Hillary Lindsey ("Country Strong").
Like a lot of symphonies around the country, the CSO sought to use its pops series, which features the symphony playing more familiar selections from popular music or movie soundtracks, to attract nontraditional audiences. The shows have featured everything from holiday music to collaborations with original and tribute bands doing entire classic-rock albums to July 4th celebrations featuring Sousa marches and patriotic favorites.
The thinking was these shows would serve as gateways to entice pops audiences to try a Mahler or Tchaikovsky concert. It didn't work in that regard.
"There has not been a lot of crossover," Bernhardt says. "We thought there would be."
Pops shows have, however, been popular, and he loves doing them.
"Pops has developed its own audience," he says.
For some orchestras, the pops concerts "lose less money" than symphonic shows and can in fact help fund some of the bigger, more expensive shows.
"The pop series, if popular, can enable an orchestra to do Mahler," he says.
When it comes to reaching out to nontraditional audiences, Bernhardt's personality has fit the bill perfectly. Bernhardt, who is also known for his love of baseball (he was an Academic All-American at Union College and captain of the soccer team), Bugs Bunny and puns ("chrome for the hollandaise" is a holiday favorite), enjoys conducting the pops shows.
"I wanted to break down the walls that kept people from coming to concerts, and that was fun for me. I loved going to Rotary [meetings] and going to schools trying to rally the community around the arts in general and the symphony specifically."
It was never an act for him.
"I discovered early on that if I tried to be anything other than what I was, it didn't work," he says. "I take my job seriously, but not myself."
Further proof that Bernhardt has been wanted here came when he proposed to the CSO board in 2009 that it was time for a change. He wanted to retire as music director but didn't want to leave Chattanooga or stop working with the CSO.
"Every now and then, you need a kick in the butt. Change is good," he says.
The board was agreeable, and a two-year search for his successor was conducted. Dan was hired as music director at the end of 2011, and Bernhardt became music director emeritus and pops conductor.
"The board has been incredibly good from the beginning," he says.
Dan says Bernhardt has been wonderful to work with.
"Bob has been so supportive of me since the day I became his successor," she says.
"I was worried that it was going to be a tough transition coming out of Bob's long and successful tenure as the music director, but he made it very easy for me. He welcomed me with his signature enthusiasm and warmth, and we have been great friends since day one. For the past few years, he has been our principal pops conductor, and I know that the audience appreciates having us share the podium throughout the season."
CSO Executive Director Samantha Teter says having Bernhardt continue to be a face for the organization in the community has been a positive.
"I've been in the orchestra business for over 10 years and have worked with some very challenging and demanding personalities, but Bob has been one of the easiest I have ever worked with," she says.
"He is extremely open to new ideas and fun and doesn't take himself too seriously. And people love him.
"To continue to have him to be a part of the community has been a terrific asset for the symphony."
Retiring as music director has allowed him to become a regular pops and guest conductor around the country and in Canada, where he continues a 12-year relationship with the Edmonton Symphony. He is also a frequent guest conductor with the Boston Pops, among many others. Some work trips require less travel. In 2012, he joined the faculty of Lee University in Cleveland, Tenn., as artist in residence and conductor of the university's Symphony Orchestra.
He says he loves not being the boss and that he loves being a part of the change that the CSO and the city have undergone in the last 25 years.
"I'm having a wonderful time, and I am very proud that I am still associated with the orchestra [here]. I feel like all of us have gone along for this amazing ride, and I'm incredibly proud of what we've done.
"I'm not on the Chamber of Commerce, but I could be [an ambassador]. I tell people, 'You come here, and you'll know exactly why I still live here.' I love our neighborhood. I love how the city is constantly trying to rethink and revitalize. It has lots of things to offer all kinds of folks."
Contact Barry Courter at email@example.com or 423-757-6354.