Skip to main content

Conductor Mario Bernardi in a rehearsal with the CBC Vancouver Orchestra in 2001.JOHN LEHMANN

In the late 1970s as a freelance broadcaster, I was asked to interview Mario Bernardi about an upcoming National Arts Centre production of La Bohème he was conducting. Like many famous musicians, Bernardi could be careful and guarded in interviews (and these were the days before every verbal hiccup was tweeted around the word in a heartbeat).

But Bernardi seemed more expansive than usual in our discussion of the Puccini masterpiece, one I now realize was very close to his heart, and with which he made his American operatic debut. Surprising me, he started to sing passages from the score into my tiny, tinny microphone. (I still have the tape somewhere.)

And then he started to cry.

Mario Bernardi, the tight, controlled master of the Viennese classics, or so we thought, in tears at the music of Puccini. Not quite in apology, he turned to me and said, "The music. It's just so beautiful."

I thought of that moment on Monday morning when I heard that Maestro Bernardi had passed away in Toronto at the age of 82. One of the most important pianists and conductors of his generation (the generation of Glenn Gould), Bernardi was a builder, a man who constructed several musical legacies in this country with his spirit, drive and discipline.

The most impressive is, of course, the National Arts Centre Orchestra, of which Bernardi was the founding conductor, auditioning every player, creating a sound and tone for the ensemble, and making it overnight one of the finest orchestras in the country. I have to keep reminding myself that we are far wealthier now as a nation than we were in the late 1960s, so it wasn't merely affluence that caused this country to explode with self-definition and vigour after Expo 67. It was a flexing of limbs, a pride of spirit that we felt in those revolutionary times. And people like Bernardi helped turn that vigour into something concrete. Here was a relatively young man, born in Kirkland Lake, Ont., who had gone abroad to study and work, just perfectly poised to bring back his talents and expertise to build something of value in his native country. And although it has changed its size since his day, and to some extent its character, there is no doubt that the musical body of the NAC Orchestra is shot through with the DNA of Mario Bernardi.

And although it is his best-known achievement, Bernardi's orchestra-building didn't stop with the NAC. In 1984, in something of a surprise move at the time, Bernardi headed to Calgary to turn a mid-sized provincial orchestra into a musical entity of which people would take notice. I remember well the reaction within the CBC when Bernardi headed to Calgary. All of a sudden, what happened in Calgary began to take on national significance. Money had to be freed up to document the remarkable musicianship coming out of Jack Singer Hall, both in live concerts and on CDs. And with Bernardi expanding his range beyond the Viennese classical repertoire that the reduced size of the NAC ensemble had increasingly forced on him, the quality of his interpretations changed as well. I don't think more than three days have passed over the past five years without Toronto's "new Classical 96" radio station playing Bernardi's Calgary recording of Robert Schumann's Spring Symphony at least once. I'm sure I heard it again just last week. It's a terrific recording.

As well as his work in Calgary, Bernardi simultaneously took on the musical directorship of what was then the CBC Vancouver Orchestra and eventually became the CBC Radio Orchestra. The bitter protests at that orchestra's eventual demise in 2008 were a wry tribute to the excellence Bernardi had fostered with that ensemble, doing what he did best – building, improving, disciplining.

We're in a strange period in our national musical life, as are many other countries. The infrastructure that people like Bernardi helped build in this country is powerful in some places, crumbling in others. Certainly we have moved beyond the habit of placing mental asterisks beside the names of "Canadian" musicians and musical institutions, as we once did – today, Canadian musicians are among the finest in the world, period. We have moved far beyond the musical attitudes that Bernardi was forced to live with. But his generation had something hard for us to duplicate, that we will miss. In Bernardi's case, it was not just his music-making and talent, but his four-square, hearty, get-down-to-business artistic entrepreneurship – his belief in the growing maturity of his country, and his tireless efforts in helping to create it.