President and CEO of the STL Symphony Talks Future Plans

By Cara Wegener
In Culture

As the 2015/2016 season of the STL Symphony comes to a close—wrapping with Holst’s most iconic work, ‘The Planets’—Marie-Hélène Bernard reflects on her first year as President and CEO of the St. Louis Symphony.

Bernard has been with the St. Louis Symphony since last July, leaving her position as Executive Director and CEO of the Handel and Haydn Society—the oldest performing arts organization—in Boston. With an impressive background in raising money, reaching larger audiences and growing the H+H foundation substantially, the St. Louis Symphony is ecstatic to have Bernard on board.

St. Louis Symphony Music Director David Robertson said: “I am delighted in the appointment of Marie Hélène Bernard who will be a wonderful partner in our continued success with the St. Louis Symphony. She combines high artistic ideals with a deep knowledge of the profession and a wonderfully open and engaging personality. I’m looking forward to working with her.”

Having the opportunity to meet with Bernard and discuss the work she will continually do for the art community in St. Louis was beyond a privilege. She was passionate, energetic and a joy to talk with—not to mention she distinguished the Coco Chanel fragrance I was wearing at the drop of a hat. Check out the Q&A below to learn more about Marie Hélén Bernard and the wonderful things she has in store for St. Louis.

MHB photo

Marie Hélén Bernard

How has accepting the position of President and CEO of the STL Symphony changed your life?
It has changed my life significantly from a professional level, because I have the privilege to be with this great orchestra in this community. It’s always an important step to move to a new city. It’s not just a new job, it’s a new culture. So it’s been wonderful.

What’s been the most interesting thing that’s happened so far?
There’s so many it’s hard to pick one. Truly, the music-making has been exceptional, but sharing it with people here in St. Louis has made it extra special. To sense that the work we do here has an impact on the community—whether it’s educating children or playing for people who otherwise don’t have access to it or welcoming people to the hall—and the quality of music-making is extraordinary. It’s superior to most things I’ve heard. Along with the St. Louis Symphony chorus, the youth orchestra and In Unison.

Also, to go on the road, we went to California in late January, which was very well received. To be able to bring a piece of St. Louis out into the world is a privilege whether it’s California or Carnegie Hall.  Very few orchestras have the privilege of serving as ambassadors on a national level and global level. All of the pieces that make the symphony great make my job here; every day is a highlight. Someone asked me last week, ‘What was the highlight of the season?’ and I can’t pick just one. Every weekend has been a highlight.

Is there one show in particular you feel more connected to?
I always feel connected to each one in some way. Some people stop me on the street and say, ‘The concert last week was great’ or strangers stop me in a parking lot and say, ‘Oh, it’s been a good season, thank you.’ I think there is true love. There is no greater joy than sharing the experience.

We continue to aim to doing better, more quality work and to impact more lives. I think also when you look at the educational component and community outreach are very important—so when we welcome immigrants, do work at the youth symphony—we’re really truly part of people’s lives.

What has been a standout moment about living in St. Louis so far?
I would say going to the Cardinals game.

How has it been working alongside David Robertson?
It’s good. He has a great mind, great commitment, great programming. He is willing to experiment and he understands. He cares about his orchestra and wants them to be the best. He has wonderful skills as an actor and emcee, which is always a plus. He sure knows how to communicate—through music and through words. I think we make a great partnership and will continue to strengthen the work we do together.

What kind of plans do you have for the future of the STL Symphony?
There’s quite a bit actually. We put together with David a fabulous season in 16/17, a great variety of works. We listen to the audience as well; there’s a few things that have been programmed that came from recommendations from the audience.

We are celebrating John Adams’ 70th birthday. He’s a very important American composer and very important to us, the St. Louis Symphony. He likes to think of us as his orchestra and we’re doing several of his works throughout the season and taking a major work, “The Gospel According to the Other Mary,” to Carnegie Hall in March of ‘17.  That’s a pretty important highlight. We’re going to Spain for a week in February. There’s a whole variety of activities that we do, always trying to broaden the scope of our repertoire so we can reach as many people as possible.

Walk us through a typical day in the life of Marie-Helen Bernard.
Every day is different. Every day is a marathon. Usually starts at 6:30am and sometimes ends at 10pm or even later. It’s not unusual for me after a day of work to have an evening function—a dinner, an event, or a concert. I try as much as I can to hear and see what other organizations are presenting. But a day could be meeting with a team, meeting with donors to talk about projects, review documents, negotiate things—it’s just a whole variety to look at future planning. The only thing that’s consistent when I get up in the morning is I feed dogs and walk them. No matter what happens in my day, the dog routine is consistent. The beautiful thing about St. Louis—I live in Central West End which is pretty close to my workplace—I have luxury of being able to feed and walk the dogs most days before going onto other things I need to do.

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