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The National Arts Centre’s was neither his first orchestra nor his last, but it is arguably his monument, an ensemble he hand-picked and shaped into what Karl Munchinger, late conductor of Germany’s internationally celebrated Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, once characterized as the finest of its kind in the world.
Under Bernardi it usually numbered about 46 players. Under Pinchas Zukerman, the orchestra’s current music director (who will lead it in a Roy Thomson Hall concert April 20), it performs a broader repertoire, sometimes employing 20 or so more.
Few of today’s players remember the Bernardi years but they were special. What the maestro from Kirkland Lake, Ont., developed was similar, on a smaller scale, to what George Szell — a musician he much admired —developed in Cleveland, an ensemble of remarkable precision, clarity and transparency.
No wonder his Mozart sounded so remarkable. No wonder his Stravinsky sounded no less. No matter how texturally complex the score, it emerged in the hands of his players with its architecture constantly legible to the listener.
Like Szell he was sometimes accused of being somewhat dry and unsensual. Douglas (Pace) Sturdevant, a trumpeter in the orchestra before joining its administration, recalls that it was his successor, the outgoing Italian conductor Franco Mannino, who “added the Technicolor.”
“He never trifled with anything,” Sturdevant insists. “When he programmed a new Canadian piece he would give it the same attention as a masterwork from the past.”
Some of Sturdevant’s happiest Bernardi memories found the two of them in the pit during the summer opera performances of Festival Canada and Festival Ottawa. Those performances, rather than those emanating from Toronto or Montreal, set the operatic standard for all of Canada.
Bernardi had cut his teeth on opera as a coach and pianist during the Canadian Opera Company’s early years and later as a senior coach and music director of one of the Sadler’s Wells companies in London, now known as the English National Opera.
It was in London that he was recruited by National Arts Centre director general Hamilton Southam to come home and build an orchestra in Ottawa. Relatively inexperienced in symphonic music, he nonetheless quickly became recognized as the foremost Canadian conductor of his generation.
Although he guest conducted elsewhere — he even took the National Arts Centre’s landmark production of Handel’s Rinaldo to the New York’s Metropolitan Opera — a major international career, such as the one Yannick Nézet-Séguin is now enjoying as the music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, failed to materialize.
Some argued it was because of his difficult personality. Whatever the reason, Canada became the beneficiary of his primary attentions. Subsequent to his Ottawa years he built the Calgary Philharmonic into one of the country’s finest orchestras and solidified the CBC Vancouver Chamber Orchestra into a radio institution.
Sadly for Torontonians, he conducted relatively little in the city he made home, although in his last active years he was coaxed by the Royal Conservatory to preside over a pair of Mozart operas, The Marriage of Figaro and Cosi fan tutte.
I still remember the looks on the faces of my students, coming to class after a Bernardi rehearsal or performance. As one of them enthused: “He was really tough, but he made us perform better than we thought we could.”
A series of debilitating strokes in 2009 and 2010 effectively ended his career and he resides today, wheelchair-bound at the age of 82, in a retirement residence. It was at this residence, Villa Colombo, that he was visited this past summer by the National Arts Centre Wind Quintet, performing a concert in his honour.
As Peter Herrndorf, the National Arts Centre’s president and CEO, recalls: “We thought it was important to have a concert in Toronto at the residence where Mario Bernardi is living because it would be something he would enjoy, and would bring great joy not only to his family but to the musicians he mentored throughout his career.