"I could tell you the one about the cannibal in the butcher shop - it's in excellent taste, of course."
Chattanooga Symphony & Opera Music Director Bob Bernhardt is preparing for a rehearsal at downtown's Tivoli Theatre. A visitor has requested a joke. Several unsuitable ones blip across his mental touchscreen. "On my last concert ever, I'm going to tell all the jokes I've never been able to tell," he says with a laugh, "and I'm going to say 'what are you gonna do, fire me?'"
A superlative conductor with a sheaf of music director and guest conducting credits, Bernhardt, 59, has produced and promoted classical music, Pops and opera across the country for more than 30 years. Audiences and colleagues herald him for his sense of humor, love of sports and nurturing nature.
"Bob has the gift of making the performance experience completely positive," says violinist Nadja Solerno-Sonnenberg. "If I see that I am going to work with Bob, my heart just smiles."
On June 1, Bernhardt gives up his 19-year title of "Music Director." He will not, however, leave town. "I've always tried to bloom where planted," Bernhardt explains. "But here I have truly found a home."
The Board of the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera also wishes him to remain in town. Bernhardt's talent, generosity and charisma make him a Scenic City treasure, says Board President Susan Elliott Rich. Most conductors live in one city no more than three to five years, she adds. "It speaks volumes to Bob's abilities, personality and likeability that he has remained here as long as he has."
So, beginning June 1, the Board has asked Bernhardt to take the newly created position of Music Director Emeritus. His new duties will have to harmonize with the new Music Director's interests, but Pops concerts, special requests and publicity tours may be on the bill.
"Bob and his beautiful wife Nora will remain in Chattanooga and he will continue to conduct concerts," says Rich. "That is a true blessing for this community."
Growing up in Rochester, N.Y., Bernhardt took piano lessons, jammed in a rock band, sang road songs in coffeehouses, and strummed acoustic guitar.
He also studied math and science and played varsity soccer and baseball. His high school buddies catalogued him as a "jock-nerd."
"It was a really strange combination," says Bernhardt. "But I've always thought myself incredibly lucky."
At Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., he played varsity sports while mustering musicians from dorm rooms and cubicles as assistant conductor for the school orchestra. During his senior year, he conducted his first piece - a J.C. Bach sinfonietta.
"I discovered I was very comfortable with the physicality of conducting," recalls Bernhardt. "In that moment, the 'musical me' and the 'athletic me' met." After graduating Phi Beta Kappa, he arrived at Kansas City Royals spring training. Four days later, he struck out. "They told me 'we think you might have other strengths,'" says Bernhardt. "It was hard to hear, but it was important that I did it. I would have always had questions."
Returning to his hometown, he covered sports, weddings and concerts for the local newspaper. One day, Rochester Philharmonic Associate Conductor Isaiah Jackson proposed a trade: Brahms symphonies instruction for racquet sports lessons. "He'd never done anything athletic in his life," says Bernhardt, laughing. "So I bartered Brahms for squash."
Soon afterward, he enrolled in the University of Southern California School of Music. By 1992, he had debuted at Carnegie Hall, served as music director in Birmingham, Texas and Tucson and guest-conducted at orchestras around the country.
He was holding key positions at the Louisville Orchestra and Kentucky Opera and had just been invited by Academy Award-winning composer John Williams (Jaws, Star Wars, the Indiana Jones' series, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) to debut with the Boston Pops.
Meanwhile, the CSO was courting him for the Music Director's position. Something in the way the Chattanoogans wooed him, Bernhardt remembers, made him never want to leave. "The job of conducting both opera and symphony in the same place was so attractive," he says, "and it's been the luckiest, the happiest thing."
The new Maestro didn't wait a beat. He titled his first season "Serious Fun." On the brochure cover he pictured himself juggling colorful balls in his conductor's tuxedo. "An old vaudeville adage says 'never be upset with applause,'" notes Bernhardt. "I wanted everybody to know the CSO's music belongs to everybody - that it is as far away from 'the elite' as possible."
He also coached his musical team into fighting form. "Bob had the effect of coalescing the spirit of the orchestra," says Monte Coulter, principal percussionist. Eventually, he pressed to double the CSO's concert nights.
"You grow as artists when you play the same music more than once," says Bernhardt. "The second time, you take more risks."
A radio show, elementary classroom talks, college lectures, television appearances - Bernhardt sung music's praises with rock star panache.
A "musical boot camp" lunch drew record crowds. "These events are always sold out because Bob makes everything so interesting," says Rich. "At times it's like 'Bob does Jerry Springer.'"
In Louisville, he had given landmark pre-concert talks ("it was rare at that time," says Bernhardt). The speeches drew as much on Ziegfeld Follies gag books as music history texts. "A highlight for me is listening to the audience groan when Bob tells his jokes," says Tim King, former executive director of the Louisville Orchestra. "You'd be amazed at the number of people who say they buy season tickets because Bob is so funny."
Bernhardt had once conducted Judy Collins with the Louisville Orchestra in the middle of Bernheim Forest. Now, he began to book the CSO on baseball fields, churches, private lawns. "I wanted to debunk the reasons that keep people from coming to a symphony. I wanted to perform concerts in places you wouldn't expect us to show up." He propelled players into a crowd of swing dancers in "Big Band Fever" and into Coolidge Park for the "Pops on the River" on the third of July.
"Bob's always in, he's always in, he's both feet." - Joe "Dixie" Fuller, entertainment director for the Riverbend Festival
Beginning in 2000, a sparkling Pops series also exploded. Over the past 11 years, the CSO has paired up with such popular celebrities at Riverbend as Wynonna Judd, Randy Newman, Ricky Skaggs and The Waybacks. "At Coolidge Park and Riverbend, we play for the largest number of first-time listeners in our lives," says Bernhardt. "These concerts are essential to us."
Behind the scenes, Bernhardt helps select the bands and reviews parts and scores. When Michael McDonald's sheet music arrived in a shambles, Bernhardt plucked the French horn from the piccolo parts himself. "Bob's always in, he's always in," says Joe "Dixie" Fuller, the Riverbend Festival's entertainment director. "He's both feet."
As a boy, Bernhardt listened to his mother's favorite crooners. He learned about classical music from a Funk & Wagnall's greatest hits album, received as a prize for buying groceries at the local store. When he heard The Beatles as a teen, "they were a lightning strike - there was an unbelievable energy. They took significant risks."
Bernhardt's knowledge of cowbells, calliopes, axes (electric guitars) and zithers, his eclectic experiences and enthusiasm for all musical forms - long ago secured him a reputation as a master of the musical collage. "To conduct a Pops concert, you need to know and feel comfortable with many different genres of music," says Dennis Alves, director of artistic programming for the Boston Pops. "Bob is one of those people."
Back in his dressing room, Bernhardt struggles to answer the "19-year legacy" question. With so many enthusiasms, influences and memories, how can he choose? Bringing people to live music, he decides, may be his gift. "If you sit in Row 5 and feel the energy coming at you, I swear, you will gain something from that experience," he says. "There's nothing like being in the same room with people who live and work in your town, all giving you their best effort with the greatest music ever written."
Finally, he suggests a parting tale - and this one's no joke:
"When I talk to kids, I ask: 'How many of you listen to: R&B - rap - rock 'n' roll - jazz - classical?' Only a few raise their hands for each one. Then I say: 'The only thing that would make me happier is if all of you raised your hands to everything on that list - why aren't you listening to everything?'"