Time was—in the Ottawa-Hull area, home of the very civil service and meticulously manicured lawns— when a tale of two cities was a simple, thudding description: Hull and Dull. For pencil pushers there were pithy rewards—slog all day and jog all evening. An alternative to jogging (or throwing yourself in the Rideau Canal) is a diamond in the bureaucratic trough called the National Arts Centre Orchestra. Guided along for the past 10 years by the baton of Mario Bernardi, it’s as polished and brilliant as any of its kind and a musical miracle. Bernardi, the boy from Kirkland Lake, Ontario, has turned 46 other musicians into a single precision instrument capable of making Mozart as musical as he should be and Haydn the hell of a good listen he is. The odds were 100 to 1 against it ever happening.
“Mario’s the best all-around musician in the country,” says Franz Kraemer, head of music for the Canada Council and former music director of Toronto Arts Productions. “The orchestra is the most useful thing musically that has ever been done in Canada.” Never one to
indulge in false modesty, the softspoken and silver-haired Bernardi, who mildly resembles a troll, is the first to trumpet his own achievements. “I will immodestly say that mine is the best orchestra that has ever been formed here,” he says, borne out, incidentally, by reviews from home and abroad. And as artistic director of Festival Ottawa, a month-long summer series of opera and chamber music (see Maclean's, July 16, 1979), he has elicited panegyrics from even the most scrupulous of critics, such as The New Yorker's Andrew Porter. On Sept. 15 he will take this year’s sensationally successful production of Massenet’s Cendrillon, starring U.S. mezzosoprano Frederica von Stade, to Washington and on Oct. 19 the orchestra will play at New York’s Carnegie Hall.
Having inched himself up the scale of success as a pianist, vocal coach and fledgling conductor in Canada during the ’50s, Bernardi became music director of the Sadler’s Wells Opera (now the English National Opera) in 1965. He was 35. When he returned home he was approached to build an orchestra from scratch for the NAC, which in 1969 was the newly erected home of Canadian culture. One catch was that he was for-
bidden to lure musicians away from other orchestras around the country; the other was that there just wasn’t enough money for a full-sized symphony. In a town where skepticism is as necessary as sewers, many made manifest their doubts. One ex-ambassador in Ottawa actually laughed in Bernardi’s face at the folie de grandeur of it all. The scoffing laughter was a kind of déjà vu. While studying for an exam at the Venice Conservatory of Music, he found himself locked in a soundproof room until a janitor happened along, let him out, and announced with unwarranted glee, “It’s all over. You’re too young to pass the examination anyway.” Officialdom was entreated, a makeup exam granted, and with a mark of 100 per cent Mario Bernardi became the youngest pupil ever to graduate in his subjects from the Venice Conservatory. Not much has been heard from either the janitor or the ex-ambassador since.
Bernardi, for all his pains in building an orchestra from nothing, is still regarded by many as a cold fish. Even Kraemer admits, “He’s a difficult man, but mainly because he’s a perfectionist. His is a cold orchestra, so controlled and so tasteful. His conducting is careful and Victorian. What makes him interesting as a personality is that Italian temper under the coolness.” The NAC conductor does, in fact, often fall into the category of conductor-cumogre, such as Toscanini, whose players were seldom moved to send flowers after he got through with them. Superficially, the stereotype is there: the martinet perfectionism, the low profile and the regard for music as a near-religious activity in which a wobbly note is a profanity.
Trusting in stereotypes, however, is the mental equivalent of a lazy eye. Elaine Klimasko, a violinist with the orchestra since its inception (when, amazingly, the average age of the players was 29), says that Bernardi’s demands aren’t unfair: “And the man really loves music. I’ve seen him on the podium in tears. God knows, though, he can frown—and pretty viciously too.” Concertmaster Walter Prystawski calls him “a very, very difficult taskmaster. He has an enormous concern for exactitude, almost a devotion to it, and he works harder at his gig than anyone else.” Bernardi has to work harder: if one of the players frets a foul it’s immediately recognizable in so small an or-
chestra. Despite its maestro’s image, the rate of turnover in the orchestra is small.
Bernardi talks about his charges as though they were prodigious bambini. “We did [Mozart’s] Cosifan tutte three years ago and this festival season would you believe 85 per cent of the orchestra remembered the tempi?” Because he’s the boss of the bambini, he feels compelled to set an example. He gets up at 7:30. He has “no lunch—ever.” He spends all day with his ear to the grindstone, sometimes all evening as well. “I have this constant fear—and I’ve never told this to anyone before. It’s a fear that I won’t know the piece of music I’m supposed to conduct at the first rehearsal. I couldn’t bear that if it happened.” To stave off the humiliation, perhaps remembering the scorn of the janitor and the ex-ambassador, he memorizes all scores and claims to have never been unprepared. “Which is more than I can say for some of my colleagues,” he adds. “The day of each concert is exhilarating. It’s as if you turned a spring until its tension was just perfect—and then comes the release. On a day when you don’t want to conduct, it’s the most ghastly, shitty feeling.” Like most musicians he’s driven by obsession powered by a fierce pride in himself.
The most difficult score he has ever
encountered was Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night with its relentlessly complex string configurations, a score that gives most string players the uneasy feeling they have joined the circus to do highwire acts. Bernardi has been accused of giving short shrift to modern music built on the 12-tone scale. “I’m still not a 12-tone man,” he confesses. “I’d rather be criticized for having a full hall.” He points to the Vancouver Symphony’s subscription series—the largest in the world—and its penchant for programming the more popular pieces. He has also ruffled the feathers of the more painstakingly plumed birds in the business by taking on the burden of Festival Ottawa in addition to the music direction of the centre. Some feel there’s a conflict of interest there, claiming that his job as NAC music director subtracts from the energy he could apply to the festival, that both roles wear him down. (Bernardi took a sabbatical last year—rare for a conductor.) With his customary braggadocio, Bernardi retorts, “There’s really nobody else here knowledgeable in the opera business, so I’m it.”
Being Italian, he loves opera as vehemently as Canadians love hockey. When he first arrived at Sadler’s Wells, the London Observer called him “a Verdi conductor in a thousand.” Cendrillon star Frederica von Stade, whose CBS record of Italian arias is being released this month with the NAC Orchestra playing and Bernardi conducting, sings his praises to the high Cs. “He’s the most scrupulous musician. He understands singers and likes them. A conductor can kill you with the wrong tempo. The voice is like a tiny ball on top of a fountain of water. With Mario you never have to worry.”
Will Bernardi remain with the NAC Orchestra? Bernardi says yes, but Kraemer, for whom he worked as an opera coach in the ’50s and who has followed the conductor’s career with nearpaternal familiarity, is somewhat skeptical of the NAC tenure. “I think he has a big problem with regard to his career. The small orchestra limits what he can do. He has to forgo the big, blasting sonorities of the heavy-metal composers such as Bruckner and Wagner. He’s hungry to do bigger things.” Bernardi, on the other hand, claims to be content with his guest conducting elsewhere;
besides, as of yet there have been no offers strong enough to lure him away. (Most Canadian musicians would agree that if he does leave, the NAC Orchestra would be the largest, most destitute orphan around.)
Mario Bernardi didn’t finish high school, but speaks five languages. He married a mezzo, Mona Kelly, and they have one child. He’s a crossword puzzle fanatic. He relaxes in his new swimming pool and has just learned to swim. In the mid-’50s he used to fly as a hobby, until it became too expensive, in terms of both time and money. “Now I’m so aware of the job I’m doing that I always have to keep a cool head. There are times on the podium when I want to stop conducting and just wallow in the sound. That’s like getting lost in the clouds, too. But I’m a pilot in a different sense these days and I always have to look at the instrument panel.”
When Bernardi was flying for a hobby he says he had a “fantastic sense of freedom in flying.” It’s one of life’s little ironies that one great love kills the other. It’s one of life’s little comforts that some people learn to live with it.
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