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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.

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.)

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