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New St. Louis Symphony CEO settles in

Central West End resident with roots in Canada wants to draw in a wider, more diverse audience

Shorter version originally published in the West End Word, October 9, 2015

By Eileen P. Duggan

Marie-Hélène Bernard, president and CEO of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, at Powell Symphony Hall. Bernard comes from a musical family and spent a decade playing viola da gamba professionally. Photo by Ursula Ruhl

Marie-Hélène Bernard, president and CEO of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, at Powell Symphony Hall. Bernard comes from a musical family and spent a decade playing viola da gamba professionally.
Photo by Ursula Ruhl

Marie-Hélène Bernard officially took over as the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s president and chief executive officer on July 1, but already she’s immersed herself in the St. Louis community.

Since she arrived, she’s absorbed an impressive amount of information about the St. Louis area, the local institutions, the people and the orchestra itself with lightning speed — the tempo at which she talks.

But she’s used to assimilating into a new community. Born in a small town in the Canadian province of Quebec near the Vermont border, Bernard grew up in Montreal, emigrated to the United States in 1996 and became a U.S. citizen a few years later. She retains dual Canadian and U.S. citizenship.

Bernard grew up in a musical family in Montreal, where she learned at a young age to play viola da gamba, an early stringed instrument popular from the late 15th century through the French Revolution. Bernard spent a decade playing professionally, but when it came time to decide on a career path at age 18, “it was very clear that I wanted to do other things, so I went to law school,” she says.

It was a good move, as she found tax law, which she practiced for about six years, very creative. Then she earned a master’s degree in arts management from Concordia University in Montreal. She found a way to combine her music with her business and legal experience by scoring a fellowship in orchestra management with the League of American Orchestras in 1996.

Through that fellowship, she completed residencies at the New York Philharmonic and Minnesota Orchestra. That led her to stints as orchestra manager with the Cleveland Orchestra, president and CEO of the Canton Symphony Orchestra in Ohio, then executive director and CEO of the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston for eight years, before joining the St. Louis Symphony.

Making the decision to move to the United States was difficult because Bernard wasn’t just moving to a different career but was switching cultures. “People don’t realize how different Canada and the U.S. are,” she says.

Her first language was French and she did speak English, especially with some clients, but “it’s different when your world becomes solely English-speaking. There’s a lot of cultural references you don’t have because you didn’t grow up in this country. You hide a lot, and you become very good at faking.”

“I have a deep respect for immigrants,” she says. “It was not a struggle for me to come to this country.” When she became a citizen in Boston with 3,000 other people, “it was obvious to me that a lot of people had struggled to make it to the U.S., and for them it was really, truly a dream come true. They were finding freedom and opportunities that they could not have in their country of origin. It’s really hard to leave the country you come from and your culture to seek something else.”

Bernard cites recent studies that show “a high percentage of immigrants go back to school, get degrees, get jobs and start businesses. I’m not surprised,” she says, “because the sheer strength you need to get through moving to a new country and adapt and start a new life for yourself and your family — it just shows incredible determination.”

Noting St. Louis’ long history of welcoming immigrants, Bernard hopes that the orchestra can “welcome that diversity we see in our population and acknowledge through the music that life struggle of immigrants. Music is such a great vehicle to show love and make these people feel welcome and give them a sense of connection to our culture. We need to celebrate that diversity.”

Marie-Hélène Bernard, president and CEO of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Photo by Ursula Ruhl

Marie-Hélène Bernard, president and CEO of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
Photo by Ursula Ruhl

Diversity plays a role in Bernard’s mandate to enhance the orchestra’s concert experience so a wider, more diverse audience can appreciate the concerts. This includes developing a diverse range of programs offered in a variety of settings. She and music director David Robertson together shape the artistic vision of the orchestra, while she handles the organizing, managing and fundraising side.

She finds Robertson “a very thoughtful communicator, and he’s a brilliant musician,” she says. “He has a way to make music so accessible.” In Robertson’s famous pre-concert talks, “he makes it very easy for people to understand and appreciate what we’re going to hear.”

She just might recruit Robertson’s multitasking skills to help her keep her viola da gamba skills fresh. “I’m looking for people to play with here in St. Louis,” says Bernard, who still plays for enjoyment. “I will definitely find people to play with. It would be quite a fun project to play with David Robertson. I could teach him a few things on gamba and we could do some duos together.”

Recalling that Robertson plays French horn, she adds, “I think we could find him a period horn and have him play with me some tunes.”

Bernard already feels right at home in St. Louis, especially considering the French and Catholic heritage. “I love it,” she says. “It’s a great community — a lot of good restaurants, lovely neighborhoods, lots of hidden gems and great institutions. Being a Canadian, I’m very excited about hockey season coming up, but I’m still very excited about our baseball team.”

Unlike most newcomers, Bernard was introduced close-up to the St. Louis Cardinals — she threw out the first pitch at the Aug. 31 game. She also had a unique chance to explore Forest Park when the orchestra played a free opening week concert there.

“Forest Park, I must say, is quite amazing,” she says. “It’s so well looked after and beautiful. It was wonderful for us to be able to give a free concert there because it’s the best location in the most beautiful and inspiring surroundings with a fine orchestra playing the best music.”

She’d like to visit more of the other venerable St. Louis institutions and sights, but she’s been a little busy putting together her Central West End home. Bernard and her three dogs, shih tzus Max and Riki and wheelchair-bound pug Lucy, enjoy exploring the neighborhood on foot, paw and wheels. But she did have a chance to travel to Columbia and Booneville with SLSO orchestra members and has read a lot about Missouri history.

A history buff, Bernard plans to delve more into the orchestra’s history. “I think there’s a lot there that we’ve not explored,” Bernard says. “Who were those people 135 years ago” who started a choral society that evolved into an orchestra? “I find that fascinating.”

To that end, Bernard plans to read Symphony & Song: The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra — the First Hundred Years 1880 — 1980 by Katherine “Katch” Gladney Wells, with an addendum covering 1980 to 1992. Book club, anyone?

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