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Conductor Mario Bernardi during a rehearsal in Vancouver October 19, 2001 of the CBC Vancouver Orchestra, which remains the only surviving Canadian radio orchestra.JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail

Mario Bernardi, the founding conductor of the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, has died. He was 82.

The NAC says it's lowered its flag to half-mast in tribute to the revered conductor and pianist, who died Sunday in Toronto.

"Mario Bernardi was a national figure who played a seminal role in the life of classical music in Canada," Peter Herrndorf, president and CEO of the NAC, said in a statement.

The Kirkland Lake, Ont., native moved to Italy at age 6 with his mother and studied at the Venice Conservatory.

He started his career with the Royal Conservatory Opera School in Toronto and conducted at the Canadian Opera Company in his mid-20s.

In 1963, he moved to London and served as musical director of the Sadler's Wells Opera Company (now the English National Opera).

Five years later he joined the NAC and recruited young musicians to build the 45-member orchestra.

"He shaped them into a wonderful orchestra, drawing from them a unique sound which was praised by music critics for its transparency and precision of ensemble," said Herrndorf.

Bernardi also led the orchestra on tours of Canada and Europe, and created the summer opera festival at the NAC.

After he left the centre, he led the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and was the principal conductor of the CBC Radio Orchestra.

Bernardi's career honours included the Order of Canada and the Governor General's Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement.

The NAC plans to unveil a bust of Bernardi it commissioned from Canadian sculptor Ruth Abernethy on July 1 at the entrance of Southam Hall, where he led the orchestra in hundreds of concerts during his tenure.

The NAC says it will also create a fund in Bernardi's name to commission new Canadian compositions for the orchestra.