Conducting Canada to Musical Maturity: Mario Bernardi

Photo courtesy of The Royal Conservatory of Music. (click for larger image)
Photo courtesy of The Royal Conservatory of Music. (click for larger image)


December, 2014

They thought Mario Bernardi was crazy in 1969 when he left a prestige conducting job at the Sadler’s Wells Opera in London to start up a new orchestra from scratch at the National Arts Centre (NAC) in Ottawa. They also thought he was crazy in 1984 when he left Ottawa to take over as conductor of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO). But in each instance, Bernardi had a very good reason for moving. In each instance, he saw opportunity for growth.

“It was very limiting being an operatic conductor, especially in a repertory house like that,” he said of his experience with Sadler’s Wells, later the English National Opera. “If you did one that was a success, a Bohème or a Butterfly, you ended up conducting it maybe 30 more times during that season. Eventually you had to face the fact that you could be doing that all your life.”

As for moving to Calgary, it was a matter of trading a small orchestra for a bigger one. The NAC Orchestra was a 44-member chamber-sized ensemble, limited to playing the 18th century compositions of Haydn, Vivaldi and Mozart. After conducting them for 15 years, Bernardi knew the compositions inside out and was hungry for new challenges. The CPO, with its 64 players, allowed him to add the big pieces of Bruckner, Mahler and Wagner to his conducting repertoire.

I spoke to him in 1986, when Bernardi was in the third year of a five-year contract with the CPO. He had a reputation for being difficult in rehearsals but this morning’s practice was a relaxed, almost jovial affair. A good-humoured argument with the principal bassoonist over the question of playing a D natural or a D flat in a piece by Stravinsky ended with Bernardi smiling indulgently and saying, “Surprise me.”

Afterwards, over lunch, Bernardi explained that errors often slipped into the second and third editions of a composer’s work, particularly when the original manuscript (in this case from 1909) was hard to read. Co-ordinating the orchestral parts to conform with his view of the composer’s intent was just one job Bernardi did before every rehearsal. He expected his musicians to be similarly prepared. Anyone planning on sight-reading through a Bernardi rehearsal could expect consequences. He had what a friend referred to as an “Italian temper.”

Bernardi conceded he could be a hard taskmaster and “perhaps in the past I’ve gone a little bit too far that way.” But discipline, the 56-year-old conductor maintained, was a basic requirement in any art form. “An orchestra, by definition, is an ensemble: people playing together. If they don’t know how they are supposed to play together, what do you get? A free-for-all. Chaos!”

One of Bernardi’s goals with the Calgary orchestra was to raise the level of playing so that it would become one of the best in the country. If Cleveland under George Szell could do it in the United States, Calgary under Bernardi could do it in Canada. One of the ways to do that, he said, was to have the musicians constantly adjusting their intonation so that the whole orchestra always sounded in tune. “The notes should be crystal clear, like pearls,” he said. “That gives you the sense of a big sound without the quantity.” With his ear for perfect pitch, Bernardi could instantly tell when a single string was sharp or flat.

Another of his goals for the CPO was take it on tour. “This orchestra will never know how good it is until it plays in the big time,” said Bernardi. “We should go to Toronto, to Ottawa, to New York. We should go to Vienna. My concertmaster (Cenek Vrba) was concertizing in Vienna last month and do you know who was playing there? The Omaha Symphony! For goodness sake. If the Omaha Symphony can go to Vienna, why can’t we?”

At one point during our conversation, Bernardi asked me about Ireland, where I grew up. He knew I wasn’t the classical music writer for the newspaper, so I think he may have been testing me. “Why is it that the Irish have never produced a composer of note?” he asked. “Ah but Maestro Bernardi, you forget about John Field,” I replied. “Didn’t he teach Chopin how to compose a nocturne?” Bernardi smiled and said, “But of course.” I had passed the test.

Within three years after we spoke, Bernardi had succeeded in his goal of making the CPO one of the best orchestras in Canada. In 1989, the Canada Council ranked the CPO third (up from sixth) on its list of orchestral grant recipients, right behind the larger Montreal Symphony and Toronto Symphony. An additional vote of confidence came from Kenneth Jean, a former conductor with the Cleveland Orchestra who guest conducted the CPO. “The experience of conducting the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra has been the closest thing to conducting the Cleveland Orchestra since I left that conducting staff over 10 years ago,” Jean wrote in a letter to Bernardi. “The sense of ensemble, as well as the rhythmic integrity of this orchestra, is phenomenal.”

As for taking the CPO on tour, that didn’t happen until 1992, Bernardi’s last year with the orchestra. Up to that point, there had been no money in the CPO’s budget for touring. However, in 1992 a group of natural gas companies got together and put up $1 million to send the orchestra off on what they called the “pipeline tour” of major cities in Canada and the U.S. In Canada, the CPO played Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal, where the reviews were uniformly favourable. In the United States, the CPO played Washington, Boston and New York, where the reviews were mixed. As The New York Times reviewer pointed out, any orchestra that played Carnegie Hall “tacitly invites comparisons with the international ensembles that regularly share its stage.” On the other hand, wrote the Times’s Bernard Holland, the CPO gave every sign of doing what regional orchestras ought to do, which was to “provide honest representations of the symphonic repertory for its constituents at home.” He added, in a comment that undoubtedly pleased Bernardi, that the orchestra was “scrupulously tuned.”

Bernardi was 62 when he left the CPO. The only orchestra he wanted to lead at that point was the 35-member CBC Radio Orchestra in Vancouver, which showcased Canadian music and musicians through its recordings. Bernardi had been appointed principal conductor of the CBC orchestra in 1983 and kept the job during his eight years with the CPO. He continued to lead the orchestra until 2006, two years before it was disbanded for economic reasons. Bernardi wasn’t surprised by the disbandment. He said the writing had been on the wall three years earlier when the national broadcaster told the musicians there would be no more recordings. “You wonder why we give billions of dollars to the CBC if they only want to do exactly the same as everybody else,” Bernardi told the Canadian Press. “I’m very sad for the musicians, mostly.”

After decades of commuting from his Toronto home to conducting engagements across Canada and around the world, Bernardi stayed close to home during his last years. In 2010, when he was 80, he suffered a stroke that made it necessary for him to move to a care home. But he still made music. A piano was installed in the lobby so he could continue to play. He died in June 2013 at age 82.

Copyright © Brian Brennan 2014


Brian Brennan
Brian Brennan

Brian Brennan is an award-winning Irish journalist and author who has lived and worked in Canada since 1966. Trained at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut, he spent 25 years as a staff writer and columnist at the Calgary Herald, writing on such topics as politics, medicine, theatre and social history. Since leaving the Herald in 1999, he has freelanced for magazines and newspapers across North America, including The New York Times and The Globe and Mail. Among his awards are the inaugural Dave Greber Freelance Writers Award, the Hollobon Award for medical reporting and two Western Magazine Awards. His 10 published titles include several about the social history of Canada. His latest is an autobiography, Leaving Dublin: Writing My Way from Ireland to Canada

Visit him at his blog,

Brian Brian also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.











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