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Mario Bernardi was a ground-breaking conductor, and a perfectionist who was as hard on himself as he was on others.
Mario Bernardi was a ground-breaking conductor, and a perfectionist who was as hard on himself as he was on others.

Mario Bernardi: A brilliant and demanding maestro who conducted Canada to musical maturity Add to ...

Mr. Bernardi began coaching and conducting at the Canadian Opera Company, and it was there in 1959 that he encountered his future wife, mezzo-soprano Mona Kelly. Emulating the traditional, strict way he had been taught in Europe, the budding taskmaster admonished her for singing a wrong note during a sight-reading of Prokofiev.

Then, sorry that he had made her blush, he apologized to “this very pretty girl,” as he called her, remembering the scene decades later in an interview with the CBC. She forgave him. Sharing rice pudding during rehearsal breaks led to romance and they were married in 1962.

While Mr. Bernardi was having some conducting success, he feared opportunities were limited in Canada. Just as the young couple were settling into their new home, he got a request to write a grant application for a student to study abroad, and suddenly realized that he wanted to go, too.

So, armed with a Canada Council grant, the newlyweds set out for England, where Mr. Bernardi’s skills as a keyboardist and ability to sing opera in French landed him a job at the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company (now the English National Opera).

His big break came thanks to musical director Colin Davis, who took ill and needed someone to fill in as conductor. Mr. Bernardi was such a success that he was tapped to launch a new production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, conducting 50 performances and making a recording that was a huge commercial success.

“They chose me?” he remembered thinking, as he recounted to the CBC. “It was a miracle.”

Mr. Bernardi loved London, but once again Canada was calling him home.

It was 1968 and cultural visionary Hamilton Southam, with the backing of prime minister Lester Pearson, was keen to start the National Arts Centre, which was to include an orchestra. The only stipulation was that the new group not cannibalize any existing Canadian ensemble.

And so the courting of Mr. Bernardi began. Intrigued by the opportunity to build his own ensemble, he agreed to move his wife and infant daughter, Julia, back to Canada. He and Jean-Marie Beaudet, the new music director, set about casting a wide net for 40-some new recruits. The conductor also began developing an orchestral repertoire that would take him far beyond his comfort zone.

Mona Bernardi remembers the National Art Centre’s opening night in 1969 with a performance by the National Ballet. “The men were in tails and the women were in ball gowns, everyone from the embassies was there and the prime minister,” she said. “There was an excitement in the air. We were young and fresh, not jaded and knowledgeable.”

Violinist Walter Prystawski remembers well the excitement. Recruited from Switzerland, where he had been living, he was the group’s founding concertmaster.

“The orchestra was created out of the void,” he said. “It was hard work – very demanding work – and there were often tensions. But the orchestra very quickly turned into an absolutely first-class instrument.”

He described its sound – one that became distinctive on broadcasts throughout Canada – as one of remarkable clarity, precision and balance.

“We played together like on a knife’s edge.”

Mr. Bernardi pushed the players, and that level of intensity did not come without some unpleasant moments.

“Most of the time it was very pleasant working with him,” Mr. Prystawski said. He said the Mozart operas were the most fun he’s ever had in what has been a long career. “But if things started to go really badly, he was not someone who would put up with that lightly … he was a perfectionist.”

Mrs. Bernardi, who knew a softer side of the conductor, was not so circumspect when describing his presence on the podium: “He scared the hell out of everybody because of his exacting standards.”

That said, she noted he was just as hard on himself. For instance, he would never conduct a new piece until he had transposed it for piano and understood it through and though, note for note. He worked, she said, 365 days a year. And the need to strive for ever-better results was simply who he was.

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