Violinist Vernal Richardson came to Nebraska from Maryland last year to see the Omaha Symphony’s annual Christmas extravaganza.
Over the past decade or so, his son — symphony resident conductor Ernest Richardson — had built the concert from a modest show featuring a few singers and carols to the fully staged production that it is today, with storytelling, dancing reindeer and a 16-member vocal group.
And Dad, a longtime professional musician, was impressed.
“He was sitting at dinner listing all the things he loved about the concert and getting misty-eyed,” said the junior Richardson, who was 3 years old when he began taking violin lessons from his dad. “I told him: ‘It’s just a reflection of you and your training,’ and I got misty-eyed, too. It was a Hallmark moment.”
Now Dad has another reason to be proud. Symphony leaders today named Ernest Richardson the orchestra’s principal pops conductor, a position they created just for him. He will be the primary programmer and conductor for the Symphony Pops, Symphony Rocks and Movie Music series.
Richardson credits his work on the Christmas concert for the promotion. He’s using the process he employed to create that show to develop other pops concerts for the Omaha Symphony to perform and perhaps market to other orchestras. He’s working on two to debut later this season: an Irish music program and a tribute to George Gershwin.
The homegrown shows are something of a departure for the Omaha Symphony, which previously obtained the bulk of its pops shows — many centered on regional stars — from promoters. This year’s “Keyboard Kings” concert from Orchestra Kentucky was an example of an imported show.
But symphony officials see locally created shows — and Richardson — as a valuable asset for the future.
“He has a proven track record in creating dynamic, innovative and entertaining concerts of popular music,” symphony President and CEO James Johnson said in a press release. Johnson called Richardson the face of the pops concerts: “charming, warm and welcoming.”
Richardson said developing shows locally is good both for musicians and the audience.
When you choose and arrange pieces for a specific orchestra, it allows its character to shine through, he said. He used the Christmas show as an example: As he looked at the holiday music that was available for orchestras, he found “pretty uninteresting arrangements” that anybody could play. It wouldn’t showcase the Omaha Symphony’s signature sound and virtuosic quality. He looks for pieces that give musicians challenging work rather than just accompanying singers.
In addition, he’s able to hire his own talent rather than the singers who come with a packaged program. He said singers have to be gifted enough to not be dwarfed by such a large orchestra — all symphony members play for pops concerts, plus additional players on guitars, drum sets, saxophones and other instruments.
As he added dancing, costumes, sets and props, the annual Christmas extravaganza grew to be the symphony’s biggest and most anticipated pops concert. This year, the retitled Omaha Symphony Christmas Celebration will have its longest run ever, with 10 performances over nine days.
The concert’s popularity could be attributed to Richardson’s vision. He said he sees the holidays as a romantic time of year: the innocence of kids, people meeting for the first time, getting engaged, going to formal parties. It’s a busy time when people seek meaning and want to reconnect with their roots.
For Richardson, those roots were in Baltimore. His musical family was busy performing at the holidays, so they didn’t experience a lot of the holiday preparations other people enjoyed. They sometimes didn’t put up a tree until Christmas Eve or even Christmas Day.
“One year we didn’t have a tree — we had a collection of potted plants,” he said.
In addition to teaching at a local university, his dad was in several theater orchestras, and he took young Ernest to performances. Richardson remembers being a young boy sitting in the orchestra pit to see “I Do, I Do” with Robert Preston and Mary Martin, and has a photo of himself on the actress’s lap. The conductor even let him direct a few bars. By the time he was 16, he was in the orchestra at a pavilion near his home, accompanying Barry Manilow in concert.
He attended Indiana University and got a master’s degree in viola performance at the University of Michigan. He then got a job with the Phoenix Symphony and worked his way up to acting associate principal. He also had the chance in Phoenix to be acting director of operations, learning everything it takes to run a large orchestra, and eventually became a conductor there.
After nine years, he was recruited for the job in Omaha, and he’s been here 20 years. It’s unusual for a conductor to stay in only two places for such a long time, but he said he continued learning and being challenged both here and in Phoenix, so he saw no reason to leave.
And he has another creative outlet in Colorado, where he’s the music director of the Steamboat Symphony in Steamboat Springs. He’s also the founding artistic director and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Summer Conservatory.
During his off hours, he indulges in what he calls “distractions.” He has a black belt in tae kwon do and loves fly-fishing. If he’s in Colorado and he’s not conducting or coaching students, he’s on the river near Steamboat.
But Richardson doesn’t really see a line between work and recreation, because he finds work invigorating.
And he’s also happy doing that work where he is. He’s raised four kids in Omaha: an Omaha Westside graduate, a Westside junior, a Westside Middle School eighth-grader and a 7-year-old at Harrison Elementary School. He loves Omaha and has put down roots.
“It would be hard to give up what I have here,” he said. “(The symphony) is a wonderful, embracing group, and the community seems to understand what we want to do.”
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