Robert Hart Baker was young and brave enough in the 1970s to ask a well-known visiting professor at Harvard University for a favor.
Leonard Bernstein said “yes.”
“I had him to myself for private (conducting) lessons for two years, and he never charged me,” said Baker, who recently was hired as music and artistic director of Belleville Philharmonic Society and conductor of its orchestra and chorale.
The story delights musicians, who consider Bernstein, now deceased, as perhaps the most talented and successful conductor in American history.
Baker enjoyed similar good fortune while earning two master’s degrees and a doctorate at Yale. He served as assistant to famed composer Aaron Copland.
“I did everything from drive him around to coordinate class lectures,” Baker said.
Baker, 62, has conducted the St. Louis Philharmonic Orchestra for more than 30 years and served as principal guest conductor with Asheville Lyric Opera Company in North Carolina since 2004.
He’s an oboe instructor at Lindenwood College in St. Charles, Mo., conductor of the Cadenza Orchestra of St. Charles County Youth Orchestra, music director laureate of Harrisburg Choral Society and Symphony Orchestra and York Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Pennsylvania and conductor laureate of Asheville Symphony Orchestra.
Baker has guest conducted at concert halls and festivals all over the United States and abroad, won awards for performances and recordings and worked with well-known soloists and musicians.
“His broad repertory of classical symphonic, opera, choral and ballet scores are complemented by his skills as a pops conductor,” according to a Belleville Philharmonic press release.
Changing of the guard
Baker has signed a five-year contract to fill the vacancy left by Robert Charles Howard, who led Belleville Philharmonic for 21 years before retiring in April and moving to Colorado.
The Society board conducted a national search and invited four finalists to work with the orchestra and chorale before making its decision.
What Bob had that was so appealing was an experience and training and knowledge of music that was outstanding. He studied with Berstein. He conducted opera in Italy.
Ethan Edwards on Robert Hart Baker
“What Bob had that was so appealing was an experience and training and knowledge of music that was outstanding,” said Society President Ethan Edwards. “He studied with Bernstein. He conducted opera in Italy.”
The board particularly liked Baker’s background in growing orchestras — in size, quality, programming and financial stability — which is one of Belleville’s goals.
Baker also struck Edwards as being genuinely inspired by the organization’s history, beginning with its German immigrant founders in 1866. Belleville has the second oldest, continuously performing orchestra in the United States.
The Philharmonic will kick off its 150th anniversary season in October with the first of six subscription concerts.
“We’re certainly open to (Baker’s) suggestions on how to expand our programming and new ways to connect with our audience and the community,” Edwards said.
Heavy metal and horses
Baker commuted to the St. Louis Philharmonic job from North Carolina and Pennsylvania for 28 years before he and his wife, Barbra Duvall Baker, began renting a small horse farm near St. Clair, Mo., two years ago.
Barbra is a flutist and former jazz singer who works as a respiratory therapist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. She also cares for the couple’s three horses.
Barbra plans to audition for the Belleville orchestra. She has a sister, Katherine Trankle, who lives in the city.
I love music. I’m a music fan. I love musicians. They are the people I’ve most admired, ever since I was a little kid.
Robert Hart Baker on his passion
“(Barbra) spent her college years in St. Louis,” Baker said, noting she graduated from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
Beyond classical music, Baker is a heavy metal and rock fan who has been known to drive with the car windows down and Metallica or Aerosmith blasting from his stereo.
He notes that Aerosmith lead singer Steven Tyler uses classical voice etudes to warm up and keep his tenor clear and high.
“I drive a lot and (heavy metal) keeps me awake at night,” Baker said.
Baker also shares his wife’s admiration for guitar greats Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton and enjoys classic rock artists such as Heart, Janice Joplin and Leon Russell.
He catches Broadway musicals whenever possible and recently conducted for “Legally Blonde” at Lindenwood.
“I love music,” Baker said. “I’m a music fan. I love musicians. They are the people I’ve most admired, ever since I was a little kid.”
New York City roots
Baker grew up an only child in New York City suburbs. His father worked as an insurance salesman and taught at the College of Insurance. His mother was an MGM Studios publicist before she got married and became a homemaker.
Baker’s parents were music lovers. They took him to symphonic concerts at Carnegie Hall and listened to opera on the radio. He started playing oboe at 9.
“My mother loved piano, but we couldn’t afford a piano until I was 14 or 15,” he said. “I still have it. It’s a studio upright.”
Baker caught The Beatles bug in junior high and began singing and playing rhythm guitar in a rock ‘n’ roll band. He thinks it was called The Exciters. They mostly played three songs: “Wooly Bully,” “Glad All Over” and “Wipe Out.”
Baker’s parents skipped vacations and otherwise scrimped to send him to Horace Mann, a college prep school with a music faculty, orchestra, band and chorus.
His use of pocket scores during band practice prompted teachers to recognize his potential and recommend private music lessons. He also became an assistant conductor.
“It was a great thrill,” he said. “I made my European debut in Salzburg at age 17. I was a finalist in a competition.”
Baker went on to earn a bachelor’s in music at Harvard in 1974, master’s degrees in 1976 and 1978 and a doctorate in orchestral conducting at Yale in 1987, in addition to European training.
Baker took over the St. Louis Philharmonic in 1982. Violist and Board Secretary Doug Kenner describes him as “brilliant” and extremely patient.
“Let’s face it, community orchestras have some sections that are stronger than others,” said Kenner, 66, of St. Louis. “Bob really knows how to work with the musicians and bring out the best in everyone.”
Bridging past and present
One of Baker’s goals is to be a “good custodian” of the Belleville Philharmonic, building on its history and past accomplishments. The first concert of the anniversary season on Oct. 22 will incorporate music from the orchestra’s first performance on Jan. 26, 1867.
Baker also plans to get creative in expanding audiences and programs. In March, veteran sportscaster Ron Jacober will narrate during a performance of Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5.”
Baker also is arranging for a screening of the 1956 Alfred Hitchcock film “The Man Who Knew Too Much” in conjunction with an April concert that will include “Storm Clouds Cantata,” written for its assassination scene.
“My job is to do everything I can to raise the visibility of the orchestra and to show its importance in the community,” he said.
Baker also hopes to add new members. Auditions will be held Sept. 8 for instrumentalists and Sept. 12, 19 and 26 for singers.
Baker would like to see more Philharmonic involvement with schools, including Lindenwood’s Belleville campus, and explore the possibility of outdoor concerts.
He also will be helping with grants and other fundraising efforts.
“Belleville is very lucky to have him,” Kenner said. (St. Louis Philharmonic) has grown tremendously under his leadership. We’re better as individual musicians, and we’re better as an orchestra.”