He had an innate knowledge of the difference between good enough and excellent, she said. And he felt strongly that he must not waste the amazing opportunity he was given for such a rarefied education in light of his circumstances. He considered it a gift that he did not take for granted. And he believed that lazy musicianship did a disservice to the music.
“If you were working to the best of your ability, he could be kind,” Mrs. Bernardi said. “But he could not forgive people who didn’t work, people who didn’t respect the music. To him, music was a religion.”
For the faithful, working with Mr. Bernardi was well worth the emotional toll and the hard work.
“It was never about himself,” said Michael Hope. “It was about his commitment to the music.” And the commitment was contagious. The bassoonist said Mr. Bernardi loved getting instant feedback. If anyone was out of tune, the conductor would make a grand gesture of grabbing his ear. If the players were not together, he would pinch his nose.
“Sure we had our little blow-ups,” Mr. Hope said. “But afterward I would appreciate it because it always made me play better.”
Pianist and broadcaster Stuart Hamilton, who worked with Mr. Bernardi at the opera festival in Ottawa, said: “His performances of Mozart and Rossini were as close one could imagine them being done the way they should be done. I’ve never seen The Barber of Seville done more beautifully.”
Off the podium, Mr. Bernardi was said to be rather shy, although he did enjoy social events with colleagues and friends.
“He was lots of fun and had a great spirit,” said Carrol Anne Curry, who once worked with Mr. Bernardi and became a close family friend. “He loved food and good wine and conversation and it was fun to cook for him because he was such an appreciative guest.”
His favourites? Osso bucco and really great cheese.
In 1992, Mr. Bernardi left the Calgary Philharmonic and concentrated his efforts on the CBC Radio Orchestra in Vancouver, where he was the lead conductor. It had a large following as the last radio orchestra in North America, and it was a huge disappointment to him when it was disbanded in 2008.
Back home in Toronto after decades of long commutes, Mr. Bernardi continued to conduct and work with students at the Glenn Gould School.
The maestro kept going until he was 80, when a serious stroke made it necessary for him to move to a care home. But still he made music. A piano was installed in the lobby, so that he could continue to play, which he did until his fingers could no longer keep pace with his amazing musical mind.
Mario Bernardi leaves his wife, Mona, daughter Julia and two grandsons.