The Louisville Orchestra recently announced its return to live and in-person performances with a stellar season of fan favorites, as well as some creative collaborations that will have audiences applauding with roars of ovation.
Pops Series conductor, Bob Bernhardt, is entering his 40th season with the Louisville Orchestra and is ready to feel the energy of a live audience. We are fortunate to have such great leadership and talent with his wealth of knowledge garnered over decades of musical collaborations with various symphonies around the country. He is not only a staple with the Louisville Orchestra, but also works with the Grand Rapids Symphony in Michigan, the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera, and is an Artist-in-Residence at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee.
Audience publisher, G. Douglas Dreisbach, caught up with the busy conductor to talk about LO’s return to Whitney Hall, his musical influences of John Williams and a snapshot of the season ahead.
G. Douglas Dreisbach: Historically, you have always brought a great lineup of performances with the Pops Series. This season will kick-off with the music of Prohibition, then the popular Holiday Pops concert, a celebration of John Williams in January and rounding out with a Tribute to ABBA and a concert featuring the hits of Elton John. How excited are you to get back to live and in-person performances?
Bob Bernhardt: I was able to do a couple of concerts in April, one in Louisville, in fact, without an audience, and then a couple weeks later, in Grand Rapids with 100 people in a 2,400-seat hall. But I will say that doing that concert with an audience was the first time the orchestra had had an audience in over a year, and it was very emotional for everybody to have the immediate response and the communication that an audience brings to all of us onstage.
When it comes right down to it, even though it’s been wonderful to have other ways of performing during the pandemic, to have the sense of community and communication with our audience, from the stage to the seats in the hall, is why we do what we do. So, we’re incredibly excited to get back to a live performance for our audience!
GDD: What were some of your initial thoughts when you started putting this season together? Was it different this year as you started scheduling your return to Whitney?
BB: It is always a team effort from the artistic team, where we all come up with ideas, and that is the way I love to work – in collaboration. To come up with a program that we all feel offers a variety and an interest to the widest audience possible is the ultimate goal. What is different this year is that for the first concert, the music of Prohibition, the orchestra size can vary. While it’s hard to say what’s going to be happening in October at this point – if there will still be restrictions – we can do the concert with a smaller group onstage, though the hope is we’ll have the full complement for the concert.
One constant is the Holiday Pops program Thanksgiving weekend. After those two programs, filling out the season was just a matter of putting together programs we think people will love. The Prohibition concert is going to include music by Josephine Baker, Kurt Weill, King Oliver and others, music from Berlin to the Roaring ’20s in America. It’s a real high-energy program with visuals, so it’s a real multimedia experience and beautiful show featuring three amazing singers.
For Holiday Pops, I am asking for a soloist, but I am not sure if that will happen yet so I’m not going to tell you who it is. For certain, this will be a concert for the entire family, with holiday favorites and a sing along to help usher in that Holiday spirit!
And then, in January, I’m honored that my LO family has scheduled a little celebration for my 40th year with the company. They asked me what I wanted to do, and I said, “Well, since he’s my hero — how about John Williams?” Over the years we have done many concerts of his music and in fact, in 2012, John came to Louisville and conducted the orchestra, so we have this direct, personal relationship with him. He’s been both a friend and mentor to me for over 30 years, and I have no more fun anywhere than doing his music. I am thrilled to celebrate my 40th with music I love and with this orchestra that I love.
GDD: To celebrate your 40th season and to promote the music of John Williams, the orchestra is hosting a series of free drive- in movies featuring his soundtracks. They will be held at the Sauerbeck Family Drive-in on June 11 with E.T., June 18 with Hook and on June 26 with Raiders of the Lost Ark. Can you give us an idea of what we can look forward to in that celebration of his music?
BB: I love to do a combination of the music that everyone expects and some of the movie music that is lesser known. Sometimes I get a chance to throw in one of those Olympic fanfares that he wrote. He’s the greatest writer of fanfares in history and the second greatest writer of marches, after John Philip Sousa. This is all my opinion, of course, but I have the microphone, so there you go. You get my opinion. There will have to be something from the Star Wars canon, of course, and I’ll probably do music from Far and Away, which is the Irish epic that had Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in it back in the ’90s. I haven’t gotten into too many specifics other than that.
We are excited to also have two other pops concerts in the spring. One is a Tribute to ABBA, with a group called Arrival from Sweden, which is sanctioned by the original group to recreate their music as a tribute band, and they are fantastic. Then, we have Michael Cavanaugh, who was chosen by Billy Joel to play Billy Joel on Broadway in Movin’ Out!. He is a piano man and sings and will primarily do the music of Elton John on this show. But if I were a bettin’ man, I’d say he’ll throw in some Billy Joel in, too!
GDD: Over your 40 seasons with the Louisville Orchestra, you have seen a lot of changes over the years. Where do you see the current state of the orchestra now, and where they might be going in the future?
BB: The orchestra is playing wonderfully right now, and that has a lot to do with [Music Director] Teddy [Abrams]. We have had several recent auditions because some of our most important people have retired or some of our younger folks have moved on to other orchestras. Auditions bring new blood to the orchestra, and with competition for jobs so intense, our new hires bring increasing excellence with them!
One of the constants in my career, and it’s been the same with most orchestras with which I’ve been associated, is the financial challenge in keeping things going, affording the players a living wage, and that we are able to put on a varied and interesting programming with guest artists and the series that people want to hear. Part of that challenge has been maintaining the essential support of our sponsors and donors, which has never been more important than it is now. Certainly, over my tenure, I’ve seen many, Many changes in leadership in the staff and board, but the commitment and dedication to bringing great music of all kinds to our community has never been stronger.
As entertainment options of our audience grow, as they have exponentially in the last 10 to 15 years, we have had to double and triple our efforts to make sure they remember the Louisville Orchestra, and to remind them that there is nothing like hearing great music played by great musicians, live! And that has been a constant in my tenure.
GDD: In closing, give us your elevator pitch to someone who has never been to an orchestra performance and why they should give it a try.
BB: Well, first of all, I’ll say that every time I conduct a concert, every darn time, I realize that there is someone in the audience there for the first time. So, every time we play, we are making a first impression on somebody. That behooves us to be on our game and at our finest every time we are up there, and we all try to do that.
So, I would simply say that if you’re a classical music fan, look at the season programming and find a concert that really suits your fancy and give it a go. If you are a popular music fan, if you like John Williams’ music, if you’re an ABBA nut, come to a concert. Hear the orchestra. I’m willing to bet that after you’ve heard our Louisville Orchestra play, you’ll come back for more.
For more information and tickets to the 2021-22 season, visit LouisvilleOrchestra.org.