Mario Bernardi | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Mario Bernardi

Mario (Egidio) Bernardi. Conductor, pianist, born in Kirkland Lake, Ontario, 20 Aug 1930, died in Toronto 2 June, 2013; honorary D MUS (Laurentian) 1972, honorary D MUS (Ottawa) 1974, honorary FRHCM 1978, honorary D MUS (Windsor) 1978, honorary LLD (BC) 1997, honorary D MUS (Carleton) 2001.
Bernardi, Mario
Conductor Mario Bernardi (photo courtesy Gold Photography/Calgary Philharmonic Society).

Mario Bernardi

Mario (Egidio) Bernardi. Conductor, pianist, born in Kirkland Lake, Ontario, 20 Aug 1930, died in Toronto 2 June, 2013; honorary D MUS (Laurentian) 1972, honorary D MUS (Ottawa) 1974, honorary FRHCM 1978, honorary D MUS (Windsor) 1978, honorary LLD (BC) 1997, honorary D MUS (Carleton) 2001. Sent at six to Italy, he studied piano, organ, and composition 1938-45 with Bruno Pasut at the Manzato Conservatory at Treviso and took his examinations at the Venice Conservatory. He obtained the highest marks possible and was the youngest student to graduate that year. Returning to Canada in 1947, he studied 1948-51 at the RCMT with Lubka Kolessa (piano) and Ettore Mazzoleni (conducting), supporting himself as the organist at St Vincent de Paul Church, Toronto. He was soloist in the Grieg Concerto in the Melody Fair production (1951) of Song of Norway and also played that work on CBC radio.

Though his career as a conductor and coach began in 1953 with the Royal Conservatory Opera School (University of Toronto Opera Division), his work as a pianist and accompanist continued unabated during the next 10 years and on an occasional basis thereafter. His playing in a Brahms concert with Lea Foli (violin) and Peggie Sampson (cello) drew these comments from Kenneth Winters: 'Brahms' lack of consideration for the human hand is legend, yet Bernardi met his rudest demands with absolute poise, never-failing intelligence and a physical competence which made them seem positively polite ... He is a joyous and skilful man, a credit to his profession' (Winnipeg Free Press, 15 Jan 1963). Bernardi was a soloist with the CBC Symphony Orchestra (Pentland's Piano Concerto, premiere, 1958), the TSO (Strauss' Burleske, 1960), the (Stratford) National Festival Orchestra (Papineau-Couture's Pièce Concertante No. 1, 1960), and the MSO (Beckwith's Concerto Fantasy, premiere, 1962), and accompanist on occasion to Donald Bell, Maureen Forrester, Margo MacKinnon, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Janos Starker, and others. Bernardi played the Fauré Quartet with members of the Parlow String Quartet in 1957 and, at the Stratford Festival, two works of Bartòk: the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion with William Aide in 1963 and Contrasts with Oscar Shumsky and Benny Goodman in 1965.

Bernardi made his COC conducting debut 25 Feb 1957 in Hansel and Gretel and subsequently directed that company's Carousel (1957), The Merry Wives of Windsor (touring production 1960), I Pagliacci (1961), La Bohème (1963), Don Giovanni (1963), The Barber of Seville (1965), Mavra (1965), Rigoletto (1969), Carmen (1970), Joan of Arc(1978), The Abduction from the Seraglio (1980), Jenufa (1982), Fidelio (1991), and Werther (1992). He also conducted Gianni Schicchi and Mavor Moore's The Optimist for CBC TV in 1957, operas for the Stratford Festival and the Vancouver and Edmonton opera associations in the 1960s, and four performances each of La Bohème in 1966 and The Marriage of Figaro in 1967 for the Opera Guild in Montreal. In the summer of 1959 he studied with Erich Leinsdorf at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. Appointed coach and assistant conductor at Sadler's Wells, London, in 1963, he made his conducting debut there 19 December as a replacement for Colin Davis in Hansel and Gretel. In 1966 he was named music director of one of the two Sadler's Wells companies. He held this position until 1968, conducting Don Pasquale, The Flying Dutchman, I Pagliacci, The Queen of Spades, A Masked Ball, an acclaimed revival of Britten's Gloriana (which he also conducted on the continent), Don Giovanni, and The Italian Girl in Algiers. While in London he appeared in recital with Steven Staryk at Wigmore Hall and in 1968 he guest-conducted the London Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He made his US debut in 1967 in La Bohème with the San Francisco Opera.

In 1968 Bernardi became the first conductor of the newly formed NACO and, with Jean-Marie Beaudet, was responsible for the selection of musicians. It was Bernardi alone, however, who shaped the orchestra into an organization of distinction, noted for its clean attack, transparent sound, and fine tuning. With that orchestra he conducted premieres of works by Adaskin, Beecroft, Fleming, Freedman, Gellman, Pentland, Prévost, Ridout, Schafer, Tremblay, and Wilson. With the NACO, Bernardi performed as a soloist in concertos of Mozart and Ravel, conducting from the keyboard. In 1971 he became general music director for the NAC and artistic director for the centre's Festival Canada (renamed Festival Ottawa in 1978), subsequently conducting the major Mozart operas and a long list of other works including Le Comte Ory (1974), The Queen of Spades (1976), Ariadne auf Naxos (1977), and Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1978). Other conducting engagements have taken him to Place Des Arts (La Bohème 1970), the New York City Opera (The Abduction from the Seraglio 1971), the Chicago and Pittsburgh symphony orchestras (1972), and the Warsaw Philharmonic (1975). He also conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in works of Aitken, Beecroft, Freedman, Hétu, and Schafer 4 Nov 1977 during Musicanada.

Bernardi left the NACO in 1982 and in 1983 became principal conductor of the CBC Vancouver Orchestra (the CBC Radio Orchestra), replacing John Eliot Gardiner. Gardiner had changed the orchestra's emphasis from championing new compositions to perfecting authentic baroque style, but Bernardi moved back to the model set by the orchestra's founding director, John Avison, nonetheless taking advantage of the training the orchestra had received to present baroque repertoire with his characteristic clarity and precision. Bernardi remained principal conductor of the CBC Radio Orchestra in 2003.

In 1984 Bernardi also became music director of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. A growing orchestra with an enthusiastic board of directors, together with the promise of the new Jack Singer Concert Hall, offered a set of circumstances not dissimilar to that posed by the NACO in 1968. Under Bernardi's tutelage, the Calgary Philharmonic achieved a high rank among Canadian orchestras, made several recordings, and began to tour. He expanded the repertoire of the orchestra and included in its programs more contemporary works, many by Canadian composers. Bernardi resigned from this orchestra in 1993, retaining the title conductor laureate.

Among the premieres Bernardi conducted as a guest conductor with other orchestras are Ridout's The Dance (CBC Symphony Orchestra 1960) and Folksongs of Eastern Canada (CBC Toronto orchestra 1967), Adaskin's Rondino for Nine Instruments (Toronto 1962), Norman Symonds' TV ballet Tensions (CBC Toronto 1962), Harry Somers' Movement for Orchestra (CBC Toronto orchestra 1962), Papineau-Couture's Contraste (MSO, Montreal International Competition, 1970), Malcolm Forsyth's Sagittarius (Canadian Chamber Orchestra and Canadian Brass 1975), and Rudi van Dijk's The Shadow Maker (TS and Victor Braun 1978).

Despite his busy schedule with the CBC Vancouver Orchestra and until 1993 with the Calgary Philharmonic, Bernardi continued to appear as guest conductor, particularly, although not exclusively, of operas, with such companies as the Chicago Lyric Opera, San Francisco Opera, New York City Opera, and the Houston Grand Opera. He made a successful Metropolitan Opera debut 19 Jan 1984 conducting Handel's Rinaldo. In 1986 he conducted Aida for the English National Opera and in 1987 Massenet's Cendrillon for the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, and Don Giovanni for the Opéra de Montréal. He also conducted for Opera Hamilton, Opera Lyra Ottawa, Calgary Opera, and other Canadian opera companies.

Bernardi began to appear regularly again with the NACO after 1993, conducting concerts annually and such events as the National Arts Centre's 30th anniversary celebration, as well as concerts of music by Schafer and Alexina Louie. He became conductor laureate there in 1997.

Bernardi's conducting displayed a finely developed sense of style, which sets in relief the sheerly musical elements of whatever he chose to interpret. In the classical repertoire he relied on a keenly tuned orchestra, the strings lightly bowed and deft rather than deeply sonorous, yielding buoyant and elegant performances, especially of Mozart, for whom his affinity was marked. This repertoire was the mainstay of his period with the NACO. He had equally fine results with the Calgary Philharmonic in the great romantic orchestral works, from the Schumann symphonies to Mahler's Symphony No. 8. And with the CBC Vancouver Orchestra his precise, even, and analytic beat resolved the thorny intricacies in many contemporary works. Among his dozens of recordings, two received Juno awards (in 1998 and 2003). In opera, his performances were transparent in texture, rhythmic, and proportionate, and did not sacrifice musical values to emotional display. By the discipline of his work, the conscientiousness of his programming, and the outstanding results he achieved as an orchestra builder, Bernardi proved to be perhaps the outstanding Canadian conductor of his generation.

Bernardi was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1972, received the Canadian Music Council medal in 1981, and was presented with the CCA's Diplôme d'honneur in 1982. He was the subject of a 1994 show on CBC radio's Mostly Music. Bernardi was further honoured with the Jean E. Chalmers Award in 1999, the National Arts Centre Award in 1999, and the Governor General's Performing Arts Award in 2001. In 2009 Bernardi was named an ambassador of the Canadian Music Centre. His wife was the mezzo-soprano Mona Kelly.


Bruch Concerto No. 2. J. Ehnes violin, Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, Bernardi cond. 2002. SMCD 5222 CBC

Coulthard Quebec May. Bernardi, Chotem piano, CBC Toronto Choir, Waddington conductor. 1951. RCI 35/6-ACM 10

Humperdinck Hansel and Gretel. Sadler's Wells Opera, Bernardi conductor. 1966. 2-Cap GBO-7256/2-Classics for Pleasure CFPD-4432

Mozart Quartet K478. Bernardi piano, Prystawski violin, Sternic viola, Whitton violoncello. 1971. CBC SM-170

- Horn Concertos. Sommerville horn, CBC Vancouver Orchestra, Bernardi cond. 1997. SMCD 5172 CBC

Papineau-Couture Pièce Concertante No. 1. CBC SO, Susskind conductor, Bernardi piano. Col MS-6285

Pentland Concerto. CBC SO, Feldbrill conductor, Bernardi piano. 1958. RCI 184/6-ACM 25

Puccini La Bohème. NACO, Bernardi conductor. 1980 2-HRE 428

Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 4. TS, Bernardi cond. 1993. SMCD 5129 CBC

Schafer The Garden of the Heart - Gitanjali - Adieu, Robert Schumann. NACO; Bernardi cond; Brown, Popescu, Forst sopranos. 1997. SMCD5173 CBC.

See also Compositions for Murray Adaskin and Discographies for Calgary Philharmonic; CBC Vancouver Orchestra; Edmonton Symphony Orchestra; Frances James; NACO; Robert Silverman; Steven Staryk; Toronto Symphony; Vancouver SO.

Further Reading