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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 ...

Brilliant, driven, demanding, passionate, precise – these are the words people use when remembering Mario Bernardi, one of Canada’s premier conductors and a renowned builder of cultural institutions.

Mr. Bernardi, who died June 2 at 82, was known for conducting superlative Mozart, developing top talent, championing Canadian composers and, above all, for creating from the ground up a flagship orchestra in the nation’s capital that fostered Canada’s coming of age in terms of musical excellence.

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He also created a much-loved summer opera festival in Ottawa that treated audiences to highly polished productions.

From there he moved west, where he transformed the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra from a provincial ensemble to a showpiece of national stature that helped boost that city’s sense of cultural pride. He made hundreds of recordings, many as conductor of the CBC-Radio Orchestra in Vancouver, where he set standards for many works that have yet to be surpassed.

The ground-breaking conductor is said to have had “steel-trap ears,” a love of singers, a prodigious work ethic, a fierce temper when things went wrong, and an emotional connection to music that sometimes brought him to tears.

Twenty years after working with him in Calgary, Michael Hope – the ensemble’s assistant principal bassoon since 1982 – has not forgotten what made the experience so rewarding and unique. “I loved it,” he said. “They were some of the best years of our orchestra, because Mario was able to harness the talent of a whole bunch of young people and turn us into a cohesive unit.”

He had a gift for understanding structure, Mr. Hope added, not only of groups but also of music. “He knew how to find the right tempo for Mozart and Beethoven … the right way to do dynamics, finding the climax and the denouement. That was his signature characteristic. He had a great feeling for the arc of a piece.”

The arc of the conductor’s life was every bit as remarkable.

Mario Bernardi was born Aug. 2, 1930, in Kirkland Lake, Ont., the first child of Leone Bernardi and his wife, Rina (Onisto). Leone, a blacksmith, had immigrated to Canada from Italy and found work in the mines. He had little education, but what he did have was a love of all things Italian, especially the arts.

He memorized Dante and quoted the verses aloud, no doubt an unusual activity in what was then a remote mining outpost.

So passionate was the father about his homeland that when Mario turned 6 he was sent off to Treviso – accompanied by his mother and two younger siblings – to get a proper classical education. This was achieved with the help of his mother’s brother, who was a bishop. From the beginning, young Mario excelled in his studies and also showed much promise on the piano and organ.

It was tough times in Italy in those years, but he survived them and, fortuitously, so did his precious piano. When Treviso was nearly obliterated by Allied bombers at the end of the Second World War, Mario was at his grandparents’ farm in the hills – the story goes that the piano had accompanied him with the aid of a donkey or two.

His mother and siblings eventually rejoined Leone Bernardi in Canada. After completing his studies and graduating from the Venice Conservatory in 1945, Mario returned, too. He was grateful to Italy, but felt that Canada was his home.

In Toronto, he set about relearning English and launched on a musical career with a little financial help from his father, and by making money playing the church organ, earning $1 extra for funerals. His highly developed sight-reading skills got him work as an accompanist, and he studied at the Royal Conservatory with the woman he called his “musical mother.”

Lubka Kolessa, a Ukrainian immigrant quite respected as a pianist and teacher in her time, inducted him – however tangentially – into the lineage of Chopin. (Ms. Kolessa was taught by her grandmother, who was said to have been taught by a pupil of the Polish master.)

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.

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.

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