Golden Reed: Berkenstock celebrates 50 years with Lyric Opera of Chicago

James Berkenstock (top right) and his wife, Jean, co-founded the Midsummer's Music Festival in Door County, Wisconsin, dedicated to the chamber repertoire. (Courtesy Midsummer's Music Festival)

James Berkenstock (top right) and his wife, Jean, co-founded the Midsummer’s Music Festival in Door County, Wisconsin, dedicated to the chamber repertoire. (Courtesy Midsummer’s Music Festival)

Some people believe the life of a musician is nomadic, traveling the world and playing in all kinds of venues. However, James Berkenstock, BMus’64, who graduated with a music degree from Peabody College in 1964, is one who took root.

At the end of June, he retired after 50 years playing bassoon with the Lyric Opera of Chicago—48 of those years as principal bassoonist.

James Berkenstock retired in June after 50 years with the Lyric Opera of Chicago. His wife, Jean, is former principal flutist with the Lyric. (Courtesy Midsummer's Music Festival)

James Berkenstock retired in June after 50 years with the Lyric Opera of Chicago. His wife, Jean, is former principal flutist with the Lyric. (Courtesy Midsummer’s Music Festival)

“It’s thrilling to be part of such a big, wonderful operation like the Lyric Opera,” Berkenstock says. “Over the years I’ve played with virtually all the big stars of the operatic world. Pavarotti sang with us many times, as has Plácido Domingo and Renée Fleming.”

He loves the repertoire, too, especially the Mozart operas. “They’re such works of genius, and they have wonderful bassoon parts,” he says. “There’s almost nothing I don’t like to play—the Italian repertoire and Wagner. I’ve played the entire Ring Cycle [of four operas] in three different seasons over my years at Lyric, which amounts to about 400 hours of Wagner!”

Berkenstock, who moved to Nashville as a junior in high school, was first a saxophone player, becoming familiar with Peabody as he played in solo and ensemble contests on campus. In high school he headed his own dance band, which included Frank Kirchner, BME’67, MA’70, retired adjunct associate professor of saxophone.

He chose to study at Peabody because “I knew I would have to go a long way to find something better than what was right under my nose,” he says. He studied saxophone with Don Cassel, MA’53, who also taught at the Blair School of Music, and with Stephen Sefsik, BMus’58, MMus’59, one of the original members of the Blair Woodwind Quintet.

It was while pursuing his master’s degree at Northwestern University that Berkenstock switched to the bassoon, which he had studied since eighth grade.

“The bassoon is a mainstay of the orchestra,” he says. “There are few parts for saxophone, and I played them as an extra in the Nashville Symphony when I was there.”

In retirement, Berkenstock, who also is an emeritus professor at Northern Illinois University, is busy with the Midsummer’s Music Festival in Door County, Wisconsin. He serves as artistic director of the festival, which he co-founded in 1991 with his wife, Jean, former principal flutist with the Lyric. There they bring chamber music, a focus of his music history research, to art galleries, churches, private homes and other intimate settings in an effort to educate audiences about the wide variety of the chamber repertoire. This year they also have their first composer-in-residence, Jacob Beranek, a recent high school graduate who joined the Blair School of Music student body this fall to study composition.

“I want to stretch him,” Berkenstock says. “I want to give him an opportunity to expand and grow and see what he really can do.”


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