Always a Logger: Neal Berntsen ’82
As a trumpet-playing kid growing up in Tacoma, Neal Berntsen ’82 always knew he wanted to be a professional musician. He saw himself playing improv in a lively jazz club, not as a classically trained musician in an orchestra. But after his sophomore year as a music major at Puget Sound, he got a gig in a smoke-filled bar, filled with people getting drunk. “I hated everything about it,” he says. He switched to the classical track.
That path led him to his current position as a trumpet player in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. It’s his dream job, playing in front of enthusiastic home audiences and touring the world under conductor Manfred Honeck. “I feel like I hit the trumpet-player lottery,” he says.
Berntsen grew up in a musical family: His mother played the violin, and his father was a singer. Though his parents both were on the staff at Pacific Lutheran University, they decided to forego the free tuition benefit, instead encouraging Berntsen and his two older sisters to attend Puget Sound because of the strength of its music program.
While in college, Berntsen studied under the Juilliard-trained Manny Laureano, who was at the Seattle Symphony at the time. “I had never heard anyone play the trumpet the way he did,” Berntsen says. “There was a brilliance of sound. I was at the right place at the right time.”
Berntsen went on to earn a master’s from Northwestern University, then worked for the Chicago Lyric Opera and the Grand Park Music Festival in Chicago, before joining the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 1997.
Music isn’t his only talent: The 6’3” Berntsen was recruited by several colleges as a basketball player and spent a number of years coaching youth basketball when his kids were younger. He still referees high school games.
When his schedule allows, Berntsen returns to Tacoma to visit his sisters, Shari Berntsen Leavens ’69, a retired public school orchestra conductor, and Janice Berntsen ’73, a piano teacher.
He also was back on campus in February 2020, right before the pandemic hit, for another reason: He received the School of Music’s Distinguished Alumni Award.