Belleville Philharmonic was already in major transition. Now its director has died.
Editor's note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat.
Robert Hart Baker, music and artistic director for Belleville Philharmonic Society, told board members in September that he needed to take a leave of absence due to kidney-related problems.
Baker died early Saturday morning, according to Ethan Edwards, the organization’s board president.
“I was just astounded by the degree to which he cherished our heritage and loved what we stood for, our history and the idea of amateur musicians making quality music,” Edwards said Saturday night.
Baker’s death at age 69 represents the latest in a series of major transitions for the Philharmonic, which operates the second-oldest continuously operating orchestra in the United States.
The board hired a new youth orchestra conductor in August to replace Leon Burke III, who retired after 28 years and who Edwards called an “institution.” A new chorale director came on board in September.
Before Baker died, the board contracted with substitute conductors for the first concert of the orchestra’s 157th season in October, its annual performance of “The Nutcracker” in November and its Christmas concert in December.
“We made all these arrangements in haste after hearing at the last minute that Bob was taking a leave of absence,” Edwards said last month.
The Philharmonic is a nonprofit organization founded in 1866 by German immigrants. It gets some grant money from the Illinois Arts Council but is mostly supported by private donations and ticket sales for “The Nutcracker” performances, according to Edwards.
Admission is free to other concerts, including indoor concerts at churches and halls and outdoor concerts on Abend Street and at the Midcentury Modern Architecture Museum.
The Philharmonic announced Baker’s death in a Facebook post on Saturday afternoon.
“His passion and knowledge impacted each of us in the orchestra and in our wider community in ways we can never forget,” it read. “Not only did his leadership make us better musicians, but his loving example made us all better people.
“We will miss him terribly, but can only give heartfelt thanks for the many gifts he shared with us so generously.”
Hired after national search
The Philharmonic board did a national search in 2016 before hiring Baker to replace Robert Howard, who retired as music and artistic director after 21 years and moved to Colorado.
Baker had been conducting the St. Louis Philharmonic Orchestra for more than 30 years and serving as principal guest conductor with Asheville Lyric Opera Company in North Carolina for 12 years.
Baker also was an oboe instructor at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri, 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 had 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,” the Philharmonic board stated at the time.
Musicians loved to hear Baker talk about being a student at Harvard University in the 1970s, when he was young and brave enough to ask a favor of visiting professor Leonard Bernstein, perhaps the most talented and successful conductor in American history.
“I had him to myself for private (conducting) lessons for two years, and he never charged me,” Baker told the BND shortly after he was hired in Belleville.
Baker enjoyed similar good fortune while earning two master’s degrees and a doctorate at Yale University. He served as assistant to famed composer Aaron Copland.
Eventually settled in Belleville
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 Missouri horse farm. They later moved to Belleville.
Beyond classical music, Baker was a heavy metal and rock fan who sometimes drove with car windows down and Metallica or Aerosmith blasting from his stereo.
“I drive a lot and (heavy metal) keeps me awake at night,” he said.
Baker also shared his wife’s admiration for guitar greats Eric Clapton and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan and enjoyed classic rock artists such as Heart, Janice Joplin and Leon Russell.
Baker caught Broadway musicals whenever possible and once conducted for “Legally Blonde” at Lindenwood.
“I love music,” said Baker, who grew up in New York City with opera-loving parents. “I’m a music fan. I love musicians. They are the people I’ve most admired, ever since I was a little kid.”
The Philharmonic board contracted with Joseph Choi to conduct the orchestra’s first concert of the 2023-24 season on Oct. 21 and its two spring concerts. He’s a native South Korean who has lived in the United States for 36 years and conducted or guest-conducted a long list of orchestras, working with Baker at Yale and in Asheville.
The Philharmonic board likely will launch a search for a new director next spring, according to Edwards.
New faces on the podium
Burke’s retirement prompted the Philharmonic board to hire Christopher Gass, of O’Fallon, as youth orchestra conductor in August.
Gass is a Belleville native who moved away, returned to the Metro East and now serves as music director at Freeburg Community High School. His wife, Sarah, is principal at Althoff Catholic High School in Belleville.
(Gass) actually played in our youth orchestra as a kid,” Edwards said. “Leon had let him conduct once as a training thing years ago, before he went off to college.”
Baker conducted both the Philharmonic orchestra and chorale until this year. In September, the board hired Richard Thompson as chorale director, a position he held from 1995 to 2003.
Thompson’s extensive resume includes serving as organist and choir director for several Catholic parishes, including one in Belgium. He also earned a law degree and doctorate in theology and worked as as an attorney for 25 years and a college professor.
“He’s had quite an amazing career,” Edwards said, noting that he’s now the organist and choir director at Cathedral of St. Peter Catholic Church in Belleville. He started that job in 2021.
Gass conducted Belleville Philharmonic Orchestra for “The Nutcracker” on Nov. 18-19 at Love Church. The orchestra has been performing it with Belleville School of Ballet for nearly 40 years.
The board also tapped Tom Birkner, jazz trumpeter and retired director of instrumental music at Belleville West High School, to conduct its annual Christmas concert on Dec. 10 at the Lincoln Theatre.
“It’s been a pretty significant earth change for the Philharmonic in the past few months,” Edwards said.
Teri Maddox is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.