THE SOUND OF MARIO BERNARDI
Outside Ottawa's Arts Centre is winter. Thank God for the maestro within
More than a century after Queen Victoria chose it as the capital of United Canada in 1857, Ottawa is still most charitably described as a promising town. Its storied Indian summers are still beautiful, but each long winter seems the worst in memory, each summer more humid than the last. There are flower sellers and guitar pluckers on the Sparks Street pedestrian mall now, but the downtown core is desolate by ten o’clock at night. The drives along the canal and the river are winding and verdant, and the National Capital Commission has put curbs at intersections of residential streets so you have to slow down to admire the surviving trees, but some of the roads in and out of town are terrible and the airport really only a way station in the Ontario-Quebec flight network. The National Theatre School and the National Film Board are in Montreal, the National Ballet and the Canadian
Opera Company in Toronto, the Royal Ballet in Winnipeg, the classical theatre in Stratford; until very recently only the National Gallery with its young curatorial staff has given the place any sort of cultural focus nationally. As a national capital, Ottawa
— as its residents will tell you fondly
— makes a fine subarctic lumber village; through the beeswinged eyes of its foreign diplomatic corps, it has always seemed one of the world’s more dismal postings.
This chilly afternoon a few dozen young men and women began to straggle into one of the crannyshaped rehearsal halls tucked away backstage in the cluster of hexagons that makes up Ottawa’s new National Arts Centre, and continued the business of changing all that. Bringing cultural lustre to Ottawa is a heavy matter, and if it weighs at all upon this group of people it does not show; they
are musicians, fiddle players mostly, and together with Maestro Mario Bernardi and a pocket-sized support staff they are the National Arts Centre Orchestra. What they are is exceptional musicians, and by taking care of that they have given Ottawa and the whole country the benefits of one of the fastest-rising reputations in international music. Theirs is an orchestra whose “elegance, efficiency and radiant musicality,” as one Toronto music critic put it, has already “left all its important competition — including the Montreal and Toronto Symphony Orchestras — standing at the gate.” Although they made their debut at the National Arts Centre only in 1969, they are the first Canadian symphony orchestra to sign a major, long-term international recording contract (with RCA Victor); they made their New York debut in February, and this spring they will begin their first
European tour by inaugurating the Bath Music Festival in England.
This day, 36 hours before opening their third season in the Arts Centre’s Opera, they appear a very casual and unruffled lot; they are surprisingly young — the average age of the orchestra is about 30 — and they are lounging about in the kind of timelessly casual clothes common on college campuses before the beaded generation came along; the language of a young flautist, as he complains that the reason they are rehearsing in here instead of the Centre’s Opera is that there is some kind of fashion show in there, would be impeccably apt for today’s politics of confrontation.
The rehearsal hall begins to fill up, and when everyone is there it is clear that there are really not many of them. The NAC orchestra numbers only 44; it is what is known as a “classical” because it is the kind of orchestra for which Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven wrote, half the size (or considerably less) of such juggernauts as Leonard Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic, which can deliver a romantic such as Wagner like an express train exiting from a Rocky Mountain tunnel. The NAC orchestra can play some of the Romantics’ works, too, and works by modern composers, and it does; the important characteristic of a classical orchestra’s size is that wrong notes and sloppy ensemble work come right out there for everybody to hear and are not lost in the general din, as they often are with large orchestras. The musicians in Ottawa’s orchestra are not only young, they work for an orchestra whose life depends on individual excellence. And they work for Maestro Mario Bernardi, who spent a year with a panel of other adjudicators auditioning hundreds of musicians before he picked them. More than a dozen of them are Canadians who were with European and American orchestras before the NAC auditions began, others came from across the country; more than half the violinists had been concertmasters or principal second violins with other orchestras; they came from the London Symphony, the Royal Philharmonic, the English Chamber Orchestra, the London Mozart Players, from Philadelphia, Israel, The Hague, Houston, Lucerne, the Casals Festival Orchestra and the American Symphony Orchestra. Canadians were auditioned first, but excellence was the criterion; happily, there were quite a few excellent Canadians around — including Maestro Mario Bernardi, who “was born in Kirkland Lake and you can’t get more Canadian than that.”
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Maestro is Italian for master, but when Bernardi enters the hall there is no great scurrying to get ready for the boss; the persiflage persists and Bernardi joins in, and the place still has the general aspect of a college lounge, with its chatter and its homey mess of music cases, hand luggage and topcoats scattered around. The orchestra’s concertmaster and lead violin soloist, Walter Prystawski, gives the musicians a tone so they can tune up, and they settle down nearly as one to the business at hand. Bernardi, a compact figure in a worn blue turtleneck jersey, brushes at his cowlick of brown hair and waits calmly, then smiles at the orchestra.
“We have a great treat in store for us,” he tells them. “This girl is great, just great, as you shall see in about 15 minutes.” He begins to read out notes he has made earlier during rehearsal with “this girl,” the Spanish pianist
Alicia De Larrocha, who is among other things a winner of the Grand Prix du Disque and the Paderewski Memorial Medal, and is to play the Mozart “Coronation” piano concerto with the orchestra the following evening. The musicians mark their scores as he reads out his notes, singing and humming to the string section to show them what he wants, what she wants, what they and the orchestra will do together. De Larrocha, a short, dark, warm woman, enters and is introduced to the orchestra, which applauds politely; they know her work, of course, and she has heard of them. (Ottawa’s reputation — that is, the quality of the acoustics in the Opera, the quality of the orchestra and Bernardas gifts — have all spread along the musicians’ international grapevine by way of Bernardi’s performance as guest conductor in the United States, and the happy news carried away from
“Right notes, please. Yes. I’d like this to be free, sort of a little cadenza, a bridge between two ideas.”
Ottawa by previous guest artists.) Everybody gets down to work.
As master of his orchestra, Bernardi is no tyrant; he is in command of the orchestra, the music and the interpretation of it that he wants, but he is not afraid to try something that may or may not work and blame himself if it doesn’t. “No, no,” he says once, stopping the rehearsal. “I’m sorry, a ludicrous idea. All off, all off. The forte, please . . .” For the most part, it is clear that he seeks to share his enthusiasm for the task with the orchestra, to have them join with him in making the music work together; as the soloist makes her entries he smiles peacefully and raises his eyebrows, looking over the musicians with an Itold-ya-so pleasure all over his face, and they are as intent as well-trained students, which of course they are, intent and exchanging sideways glances of approval. They applaud the soloist at the end of her rehearsal, expressing their approval by an ensemble beating
of the feet on the floor, a sound as warm as summer rain. Later, De Larrocha is approving, too. “Very young,” she calls the orchestra during the break. “Full of enthusiasm and joy.”
Three years ago, when the auditions were over and Bernardi had rehearsed with his new orchestra for just two weeks, he went on record with his opinion of it; he called it the best orchestra he had ever worked with and potentially one of the greatest muscial groups in the world. In 1970, midway through his second season with them in the galling fastness of Ottawa’s winter, he said, “It wouldn’t matter where this orchestra was; if it were in Timbuktu it wouldn’t matter. I would still want to conduct it.” This is not exactly a local boy’s enthusiasm for the home team.
Bernardi was born in Kirkland Lake in 1930, true, the son of an immigrant Italian blacksmith; but his father sent Mario, his brother, sister and mother home to Treviso for the children’s schooling. Mario lived with his uncle, a priest (recently appointed Bishop of Vicenza), began studying piano under his direction, and graduated with top honors in piano, organ and composition from the Venice Conservatory at 17, the youngest pupil ever to do so. He returned to Canada to be a scholarship student at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto, made his debut as an opera conductor in Toronto at 27, then traveled to England, where he joined Sadler’s Wells, moving swiftly from opera coach to conductor to musical director of the company. When he returned to Canada in 1969 to be music director of the NAC, it was with a substantial international reputation, gathered both in Europe and North America.
This day, following the departure of the soloist, Bernardi and the orchestra work together some more, and work is the word; if Bernardi is no tyrant he is nonetheless still the Maestro and he will have the music the way he wants it. “Again, please,” he says to the strings once. “Right notes, please. Yes. I’d like this to be free, sort of a little cadenza really, a bridge between two ideas. Let’s try to give it shape.” He sings what he wants, and they do it, and he smiles broadly at the end of a passage: “Yes, that’s beginning to get there.” And again he returns to the violins, the guts of the orchestra, rehearsing them separately, his face contorted with gentle remorse. “That was really quite dreadful,” he says. “Is that right? Yes, that’s the best word, I think; dreadful. Why do you want to hurt your ears? Again, please.” They take it again. “All right, I’ll hire you
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this time.” And again. “Are you happy?” he asks Prystawski. “Sounded pretty good from here,” says Prystawski after a moment’s consideration. “Sounded pretty good from here, too,” calls a blond violinist from the back row, and everybody, Bernardi too, breaks up.
Upstairs in the National Arts Centre is a restaurant called L’Opéra, with good food, a little bar, picture windows overlooking a leaf-blown terrace and the Rideau Canal beyond, and match folders with a portrait of Mozart in magenta on black. Over a martini-and-beef lunch, hours before the orchestra is to open its third season downstairs, Bernardi chats about the summer just past, the winter to come; it was a busy summer, conducting a Benjamin Britten opera in New York, conducting at the Aspen, Colorado, Music Festival, inaugurating Festival Canada in Ottawa with a vastly successful English-language production of The Marriage Of Figaro.
“The new Opera House in New York,” he says, “has wonderful acoustics, but aesthetically it’s so cheap and banal. We really are fortunate to have such a wonderful hall here. Figaro was probably the best thing we’ve ever done here, a labor of love, a talented orchestra enthusiastic about opera, which few orchestras are. Most orchestras think opera is beneath them.
“Even in London, where you have an orchestra for opera, they think that ballet is beneath them, and you don’t have to know music to hear it.” The orchestra’s New York debut in midwinter didn’t daunt him; he had been there many times, after all, and is confident of his orchestra: “For Mozart, I can only compare it to what I have heard in New York, and by the time we get there we should be far better, far neater than they ever hear. The critics, mind you, will take our preparation into account and give us — how do you say it? — a handicap. The orchestra is more sure of itself now, they’ve sort of grown up, they’re far more outgoing. What has not changed is their great joy in making music. I’m not just talking — they’re outstanding in this regard. This is something you just can't buy.”
Bernardi’s conversation is scattered with little questions — is that the right word? how do you say it? — that are apparent holdovers from his first return to Canada as an Italian schoolboy who had to learn English all over again; in fact, he is fluent in the language (he also speaks Italian, of course, and French, Spanish and some German) and the questions serve largely as conversational accents, part of a wide vocabulary of verbal gesture.
Fluency and gestural nuance are the characteristics of his conducting as well. The Opera is packed opening night; the orchestra, so casual at rehearsal, is now the penguin act of caricature, almost ludicrously formal in their tails and long black dresses; the audience, on the other hand, is wearing everything from long dresses and stoles to minis, dark business suits to bells and boots. Bernardi stands between them in midnight-blue tails, straight up on the well-scuffed podium, conducting at attention, yet using his whole body like a singer lifting the melody, calling upon a column of air that begins at the balls of the feet, elbows up, shoulders rising, bending a little to pluck short, sharp notes from the violins with his finger tips and even his eyebrows, nudging an accent grunt from the cellos, his brown forelock shining silver under the lights and bouncing naturally with his move-
“The orchestra is more sure of itself now . . . What has not changed is their great joy in making music.”
ments, always falling right into place, like the Mozart.
Another success. They have played a divertissement by the late FrenchCanadian composer, Pierre Mercure, the Mozart Concerto, Mozart’s Symphony No. 39; there are three curtain calls for the concerto and an encore for the soloist, three curtain calls for the symphony. “In case it has escaped your attention,” Bernardi tells the audience, “you’re all invited to a party for our second birthday. It’s in the lobby right now.”
In the lobby, a Canadian winery has set up a giant plastic champagne glass with mechanized bubbles, and whitecoated bartenders are pouring the product around; there is a birthday cake, and bars for harder stuff, and foxtrotting in the foyer to The Friars, and women’s committee volunteers selling calendars, and it is just like a club dance in Vernon or Moose Jaw or Orillia or . . . Ottawa, with the business suits and the long dresses
doing the box step to Til Never Fall In Love Again, and anxious-looking kids in collegiate class jackets cutting through the crowd, and bartenders counting stacks of dollar bills and looking bored. The younger members of the orchestra change from penguins to sueded champagne sippers in no time at all; Bernardi chats with all comers, thanks an American who tells him that after tonight he is looking forward to his two years in Ottawa after all; Mrs. Bernardi, the former Mona Kelly, an attractive blond mezzo with a career of her own, dances until she breaks a heel, drops her shoes in a stand-up ashtray and goes home barefoot around midnight to cook supper with the Maestro. Most of the crowd has left long before them — “They keep civil-service time,” says an official. “One drink and off they
The morning after this gala, Ottawa is back at work, shivering in the bleak sunlight at bus stops, and the Maestro and his orchestra are no exception. The amount of time they spend traveling to and fro on buses — and planes — might affront an older orchestra, confound a larger one. Part of their mandate for existence is the commissioning and performance of Canadian works, and another is spreading themselves around the countryside, bringing their music not only to such places as Montreal, which is their destination today, but to Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Regina (“really beautiful concert halls,” says Bernardi, “beautiful instruments with nice, clear, but well-rounded sound”) and points west, and to high-school gymnasiums and community halls in such places as Cornwall, Deep River, Sudbury, Elliot Lake, Lindsay, Thunder Bay, for a fee that makes them “the musical bargain of Canada,” as Bernardi puts it. Last season they played more concerts on the road than they did in Ottawa; this day, they will hit the road around nine in two buses (one for smokers, one for nonsmokers), arrive in Montreal about noon and check into their hotel, rehearse all afternoon in Salle WilfridPelletier in Place des Arts, play their concert in the evening, change, and return to Ottawa the same night — or, more accurately, very early the next morning.
Just about the whole family is going to Montreal — there is Ken Murphy, a former cellist with the CBC Winnipeg orchestra and now manager of the NAC orchestra; Hugh Davidson, once active as a composer, 15 years with the CBC as a producer, now the Arts Centre’s music administrator; Robert Oades, who is second trumpet with the orchestra and also its personnel man-
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ager, speaking for the musicians in organizational matters as Prystawski does in things musical. Murphy is busy counting heads, as he will be several times this day; there appear to be a few missing this morning, including the one belonging to a pretty violinist who is due to become a mother sometime soon. Everyone is here to work, but there is an air of excursion about the trip; there are filmy pantsuits and bright ponchos among the girls, instrument cases decorated with flower and happy-face decals; the expectant violinist and her husband, it turns out, have decided to drive down to Montreal, and eventually the buses leave, Bernardi and Oades in the nonsmokers’ coach discussing what is to be done when the violinist in fact “comes to term.”
Bernardi reads during the trip, a paperback about the size of The Godfather — Beethoven’s eighth symphony, actually, which will be part of the evening’s program, along with the Mozart concerto and two modern works, the extremely difficult Fantasia Concertante On A Theme Of Corelli by Sir Michael Tippett and a wholly seductive piece called Music For Vancouver by the Canadian composer, Bruce Mather. From time to time, he marks his place in Beethoven and talks, as always, about music, musicians, and the making of both.
“I really am not moved to compose,” he says, responding to a remark about Leonard Bernstein’s then-recent vicissitudes introducing his Mass in Washington, DC. “Perfunctorily, I went through composition classes in Italy, passed the exams with honors and so on, but I would never, never . . . We’re a long way from the days of Rossini and Puccini, who kept turning them out once every couple of weeks; now it’s quite a different matter, more and more complicated. Let alone electronic music, there are all the innovators to consider — Schoenberg, Debussy, even Wagner . . . you just can’t go back . . .
“Who’s for a smoked-meat sandwich at Dunn’s?” The buses have arrived in Montreal, where the musicians’ rooms are ready and waiting, thanks to Murphy, the keys waiting tagged with their names; there are several takers for Bernardi’s delicatessen proposition, but first there are the instruments to be looked after like dear — and very expensive — children. “Aside from the fact that some of them have mortgaged their lives,” Bernardi says, “most of them own their own instruments; one of our cellists sold his farm and bought himself a Guadagnini.”
Despite the fact that one bus doesn’t
show up until after lunch — “It’s the bus drivers who’re the prima donnas, not us,” snorts a musician — and the fact that the concert grand provided for Alicia De Larrocha is “a can of worms,” the rehearsal is businesslike and goes well, with Bernardi chasing Davidson around the 3,000-seat Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier to make sure the articulation of the tympani is clear everywhere in the house. “A super conductor,” Davidson whispers as the orchestra rehearses. “He really loves this business . . . marvelous, marvelous, marvelous. Everything so clear and precise. I don’t know if Mario would appreciate this, but he reminds me a lot of Beecham in a way — tremendous precision and punch . . . The Tippett is a very, very difficult piece. The Boston Symphony is just — barely — thinking of taking it up, but they don’t dare . . . The only word in English for this orchestra is ‘class,’ call it ‘pedigree,’ and it’s remarkable in only three years.”
“Delicious, just delicious,” murmurs a Montreal matron at the concert that night. It is not a full house, and it is a critical one — perhaps a third of the Montreal Symphony is in the audience — and afflicted with big-town urgency, bolting in disarray for the parking lots after a suitable interval of applause. But the reception is warm, and the reviews that follow it will be good. Again.
Bernardi does not return to Ottawa with the orchestra; he is off to New York for another performance of Britten’s Albert Herring, while they have a long weekend before picking up the day-to-day pattern of rehearsal, travel and performance that will ultimately take them all to New York for the first time, then to Europe. The New York Times has already made the trip north to hear them, and decreed that “Bernardi is a first-rate conductor, and he has a crack ensemble to work with.” That was a couple of years ago, and the handicappers, as Bernardi knows, will have been busy since, and no one will care much whether they are the best orchestra in Canada or not, far from champagne galas that begin to run out of steam long before midnight. But clearly the orchestra has been busy, too; on all the evidence there is no reason to doubt Maestro Bernardi of Kirkland Lake and his assertion that by the time his little classical orchestra from the subarctic timber village gets to New York they should be far better than New York ever hears. More incredible by far, perhaps, is that what New York should find exceptional, Ottawa, Sudbury and Thunder Bay have come to expect as a matter of course. ■