LOUISVILLE — Robert Oppelt only lived in Richmond for seven years, but that time created a lot of memories for the principal bassist in the National Symphony Orchestra.
His father, Robert Lloyd Oppelt, was the director of the strings program at Eastern Kentucky University from 1956 until 1968, and he also directed the annual Stephen Collins Foster summer music camp on campus.
"There were concerts in the park," Oppelt says. "I remember as a child I would run up and down those terraced seats and chase frogs around the pond, right in front of the stage. It was a wonderful place to grow up."
Oppelt's father, primarily a violist, built the string program from one faculty member to a three-person crew with a violinist and a cellist. His mother, violinist Miriam, was a public school music teacher — the first in Richmond, Oppelt has been told.
The couple and the other EKU faculty formed the Kentucky String Quartet, which traveled the commonwealth with support from the Kentucky Arts Council.
And it's the council that has helped bring Oppelt back to his home state.
At the council's invitation, the National Symphony is in Kentucky this week for its annual American Residency program. Each year, the Washington orchestra comes to a state for an extended stay in which ensemble members and staff work with area musicians, from students to professionals, and give performances, including a concert Wednesday night at the Singletary Center for the Arts.
"It's fun to return your roots and be reminded that we're all connected," Oppelt said, shortly after landing in Louisville on Thursday.
Oppelt cannot remember whether he started dabbling in music in Kentucky or after he and his family moved to Illinois in 1968, when his father accepted a position at Illinois State University.
His first instrument was violin, which he liked.
Then, when he was 15, his parents brought home a bass.
"They said, 'You've got big hands. Why don't you try bass?'" Oppelt recalls.
He said he would try it if his parents would get him a summer-long pass to play golf.
"I never played golf that summer," he says. "I fell in love with the bass."
Oppelt joined the National Symphony bass section straight out of college, when he was 21 years old. He's been with the orchestra for 29 years, meaning he has been part of all 21 of the orchestra's previous residencies, starting with Alaska in 1989.
"The musicians really enjoy these residency tours, because we get to rediscover the country, state by state," Oppelt says.
This is the first time the residency has come to Kentucky.
"I was excited," said Oppelt, recalling hearing the residency was coming to the Bluegrass State. "I'm sentimental enough — you know, being a musician, it's about emotion — that deep down I'm really excited about it. I really am."
Since he moved away so early in life, he said, "I didn't want to say I was from Kentucky. But I was born here, I'm sentimental about it and very excited, especially to go back to Richmond."
His mother now lives in Connecticut. His father died in 2001.
"Maybe there will be some folks there who knew my family and are still around," Oppelt said. "It would be fun for me if someone comes up and says, 'I knew your parents and they really influenced me.'"