[Scene Magazine] Symphonic Out and In with the Old and New
By Josef Woodard, News-Press Correspondent
As the year and the holidays draw to a close, one of Santa Barbara's long-running traditions has been a ripe chance to hear the Santa Barbara Symphony letting its hair and its "serious music" agenda down. For more than 20 years, the Symphony has put on the ritzy and accessible New Year's Eve Pops concert gala, which takes place early enough to allow revelers to proceed to midnight-geared parties, and a giddy, glitzy affair with pinches of serious musical intent in the mix.
This is also a rare occasion when fine and upstanding Santa Barbara citizens can be seen in public, donning silly hats and wielding noisemakers, sometimes naughtily and at unsanctioned moments in the performance. This year's show, well stocked with show tunes, movie music, classical repertoire morsels and more, also includes segments of ballroom dancing, courtesy of members of the Santa Barbara Ballet.
When it comes to the specialty of conducting pops concerts, Robert Bernhardt has his credentials well in order, and knows how to make them work. The conductor emeritus of the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera, Mr. Bernhardt has long been the Principal Pops Conductor of the respected Louisville Orchestra, and has frequently commandeered the Pops baton for that luxury liner of the Pops world, the Boston Pops.
We checked in with Mr. Bernhardt as he was on the job in Edmonton, Alberta, last week, to talk Santa Barbara, the Pops universe, and the definitive finale of the 2013 concert year in town.
News-Press: How many times now have you been on the podium for the Santa Barbara Symphony's New Year's Eve concert?
Robert Bernhardt: This is my third consecutive year conducting the SBS on New Year's Eve. Before that, I conducted the orchestra way back in the '80s as part of a Music Director search, which as is obvious, I didn't win (laughs).
NP: Have you found a particular quality or character in the Santa Barbara Symphony, compared to other orchestras you've conducted?
RB: The SBS is remarkable in that they play so splendidly without playing together a great number of times in the season. This is, of course, because of the general high caliber of the musicians, with so many of them active in the studios in L.A. and in many other orchestras in the region.
NP: I always enjoy the diversity of these shows and the critical balance of light, pops-style favorites, and samplings of more standard, classical repertoire. Is that a balance you're keenly aware of, in the presentation and programming of this kind of a show?
RB: The selection of the program takes some time and is a "team effort" among myself and artistic staff, and purposely does try to reflect many genres and eras. The unifying factor attempts to be great music played with excellence. The varied nature of the show is something I particularly enjoy, especially on festive occasions such as New Year's Eve if the orchestra is capable of such dramatic shifts, as is the SBS.
NP: Can you tell me about the particular program you're conducting this year with the Santa Barbara Symphony? Are there particular themes afoot?
RB: This year the program is typically varied, but with a slight edge toward film scores, which I love and which the orchestra seems to really enjoy. There are a few patriotic works — by George M. Cohan, and John Philip Sousa — a couple of nods toward SBS's future concerts this season with some Grieg and Verdi. There will also be some dance music — with dancers — to include Glenn Miller's "String of Pearls" and the Strauss, Jr.'s "Emperor Waltzes."
There's a tip of the cap to the Winter Olympic Games with one of John Williams' fanfares (the greatest composer of fanfares in history, in my opinion), and some film music by Morricone ("The Mission"), (Klaus) Badelt ("Pirates of the Caribbean"), and a medley from famous film soundtracks. And a surprise or two.
NP: You have been involved as the Pops Conductor and other posts with the Louisville Symphony for 30-plus years now. Is there a special sort of rapport that develops after an extended involvement with a single musical institution, such as in this situation?
RB: I've been with the Louisville Orchestra, as you mentioned, for 32 years now. I started as Assistant Conductor, then Associate, then Principal Guest with the Kentucky Opera, and for the last 17 years, Principal Pops Conductor. I've worked with them every season since 1981.
And yes, a certain relationship does develop. For me, it's a combination of gratitude and respect, as these players basically "taught" me my job as a beginner in the business, and we have endured the highs and lows together for over three decades. I know them well, and vice-versa. I feel incredibly lucky to have maintained this relationship throughout my entire professional career.
NP: Do you have a particular fondness or sense of a cultural mission as a Pops specialist in terms of pleading the case for orchestral music with audiences who might otherwise shy away from a Symphonic experience?
RB: When I started doing pops, all those years ago, we had hoped that there would be a huge crossover from pops to classics that the pops audience would end up buying classical subscriptions. What has generally happened is that the pops has created an audience of its own, with some cities seeing a modest crossover, and some cities almost none.
If I feel a cultural mission of any kind, it's to keep paying attention, to keep playing the music that people love and to find new music that I feel they will love, to keep being current in both music played and guest artists engaged, to find quality arrangements, and to give performances of commitment and fun.
I suppose that the message is: if we're coasting, we're dying. We have to deliver each and every time we're on the stage.