Conductor / Pianist  Mario  Bernardi

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie



Mario Bernardi, NAC Orchestra’s founding conductor, dies at 82

Published Monday, Jun. 03, 2013 12:15PM EDT  [Text only]

Mario Bernardi, the founding conductor of the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, has died. He was 82.

The NAC says it’s lowered its flag to half-mast in tribute to the revered conductor and pianist, who died Sunday in Toronto.

“Mario Bernardi was a national figure who played a seminal role in the life of classical music in Canada,” Peter Herrndorf, president and CEO of the NAC, said in a statement.

The Kirkland Lake, Ont., native moved to Italy at age 6 with his mother and studied at the Venice Conservatory.  He started his career with the Royal Conservatory Opera School in Toronto and conducted at the Canadian Opera Company in his mid-20s.

In 1963, he moved to London and served as musical director of the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company (now the English National Opera).  Five years later he joined the NAC and recruited young musicians to build the 45-member orchestra.

“He shaped them into a wonderful orchestra, drawing from them a unique sound which was praised by music critics for its transparency and precision of ensemble,” said Herrndorf.

Bernardi also led the orchestra on tours of Canada and Europe, and created the summer opera festival at the NAC.  After he left the centre, he led the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and was the principal conductor of the CBC Radio Orchestra.

Bernardi’s career honours included the Order of Canada and the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement. 

The NAC plans to unveil a bust of Bernardi it commissioned from Canadian sculptor Ruth Abernethy on July 1 at the entrance of Southam Hall, where he led the orchestra in hundreds of concerts during his tenure [shown below].

The NAC says it will also create a fund in Bernardi’s name to commission new Canadian compositions for the orchestra.


Bernardi was in Chicago in June of 1995 for two concerts that opened the 61st season of the Grant Park Symphony, the series of free outdoor summer concerts on
the lakefront.  That Gala Opening concert featured Frederica von Stade, and the following night had the Mozart Haffner Serenade and the Schumann Symphony #2

As I was setting up to record our conversation, the subject of names was being discussed . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    There’s a John Duffy, D-U-F-F-Y, who runs Meet the Composer, and everybody thinks that I’m either him or related to him, but no.  I’ve interviewed him, and when we corresponded back and forth, I had to be sure and write D-U-F-F-Y, and he had to be sure to write D-U-F-F-I-E.  It was unnatural for each of us.  [Both laugh]  
[Names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.]

Mario Bernardi:    You probably know Olga Borodina.  I worked with her with the San Francisco Symphony, and there the inevitable question was, “Are you related to the composer?”  She laughed because apparently Borodina is a fairly common name in Russia.  No relation at all to the composer of Prince Igor.

BD:    If you think about it metaphysically, everyone is related to everyone.

MB:    That is true, yes.

BD:    Well, let us start there.  Is all music related to all music?

MB:    Oh, I suppose so, in a way; certainly in a mechanical way, obviously, with changes in pitch and so forth. 
What is music maybe is the right question to ask.  [Laughs]

BD:    Okay, then let me ask the right question.  What is music?

MB:    Good God.  Why did I invite that question?  [Both laugh]

BD:    Probably because it interests you.

bernardi MB:    Yes.  One can say the generalized thing, that it’s organized sound, although some music that I know is very close to exactly the opposite
chaotic.  But if the chaos is then resolved into something that has a structure or a form, I suppose that is music, too.  Why not?  But I would like to think that music is more than that.  It’s the most wonderful gift to men from the gods, as far as I’m concerned.  When you think about it, it transcends words, transcends matter.  When you think of a composer sitting down from nothing to create great work, a 40 minute symphony, how can that possibly happen?  Isn’t that a miraculous thing?  At least a writer has a dictionary.  He can look up 100,000 words.  A composer has twelve tones to rearrange, repeat, and extend it and so on, but that’s all it is.

BD:    Is it amazing that there are so many varieties of music?

MB:    Oh, fantastic!  Fantastic.  I often think if Mozart could only just for a moment become alive again today, what would he think of our music?  It’s gone so far from his days, or even from 50 years ago.  We now talk about 20th century music, and that’s a joke.  Twentieth century music is Strauss.  How old hat can you get?  Right of Spring is old hat, for God sake, and it’s more than 80 years old.

BD:    You say music has gone so far.  Has it gone deeper, or has it gone astray?

MB:    I don’t think it can ever go astray.  Music is what one man makes it, and as such, perhaps music is related to the fact that... the figures may be wrong, but I think I heard recently that 90 percent of what we know has been discovered in the last 50 years.  So we are moving tremendously fast.

BD:    [Gently protesting]  But this is in science and technology.

MB:    But why not music as well?  I think it’s related.  Look at painting, look at literature.  Who could have envisaged somebody like Joyce 100 years ago?  Impossible.  I think it is all related to the way we live, and we live much faster than we used to.

BD:    Is music keeping up with the expanding technology in all of this?

MB:    It seems to me, yes.

BD:    Are we keeping up with the expanding music?

MB:    [Smiles]  Ah... that’s a much more difficult question.  [Both laugh]  After what I just said, people are still scared when you talk about “20th century music,” as if it were some kind of a terrible experience to go through.  Yet some of the most sublime music has been written in this century.  Really, quite honestly, the eighteenth century was really the golden age of music, and I think you can almost dismiss, as far as I’m concerned, the nineteenth century.

BD:    [Taken aback]  Really???

MB:    Well, almost.  I said almost!  [Laughs]  Some pretty good operas have been written.

BD:    I was going to say, Verdi and Wagner turned out great tunes.

MB:    Oh, and others, too!  But I still think that some of the masterpieces that are being written in this century are really that.  There’s no doubt about it... Wozzeck, and the Berg Violin Concerto, and some of Stravinsky, and, oh, so many others.

BD:    What is it that goes into making a piece of music a masterpiece?

MB:    God only knows.  I don’t think is as clear as that, because, as you well know, so many masterpieces were just not recognized at the time.  Some of them took a long, long time to be recognized for what they are.

BD:    So we have to catch up?

MB:    Considering what we said a moment ago, I don’t think we have caught up to music.  Music has caught up to the times.  I think the geniuses are there.  They may not be Mozarts or Beethovens.  I think those two are probably in a league of their own, but we do have geniuses now that lead the way, and it’s us who are mortals that don’t quite make it enough to understand what they’re saying to us.

BD:    As a conductor of both symphony and opera, you have to select which pieces you’re going to do, and which pieces you’re not going to do.  What goes into making that decision of selecting repertoire.

bernardi MB:    Sometimes there’s a germ of an idea.  It could be something as simple and unmusical as a date.  Or sometimes — and I think this is wrong — you have a famous artist or famous performer of some sort, and he or she is famous for doing a certain piece, and you start from that.  Somebody is great at a certain composer, so you try and make a program that is varied and that is somehow coherent, where the pieces fit with one another.  It’s quite a trick and it’s something that I enjoy very much.

BD:    Program building?

MB:    Yes, yes.

BD:    In program building, you’ve got to look at each individual program, but also over a season’s worth of concerts.

MB:    Oh, that’s right.  That’s the bigger scope, and the other is the particular event.  Length has something to do with it, and the forces that you have at hand.  I remember once I was doing the Mahler song cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn.  This was in Ottawa, where I had actually a smallish orchestra.  The people on contract were only 46, but I could enlarge it somewhat, to, say, 60 or so, and we decided to do that particular cycle.  It was, I think, with Maureen Forrester and Tom Stewart.  It was one of the few occasions where we had an enlarged orchestra.  I had two trombones.  Not one, but two, and that’s unusual.  I didn’t have any, usually.  I also wanted to commission a piece for the program.  So I chose, first of all, a composer who I think is wonderful, really.  I think he’s probably the best composer we have in Canada, R. Murray Schafer.  [Bernardi has recorded some of his music, as shown in CD at left.]  He’s fairly well known outside of Canada as well.  I said to him, “I’m doing Des Knaben Wunderhorn and the orchestration is of that size, as you well know.  So make me a composition that will go with that.  You can use either one or two singers or no singers at all, as you like.”  So he wrote me a wonderful piece, which he called The Garden of the Heart, and it’s very romantic.  Des Knaben Wunderhorn  is very romantic and some of the poems are very folksy, and so was his piece.  It’s all about a lover having left his beloved, and she is now at an older age.  She goes into a garden and the garden somehow appears to her as if her lover has been there.  It’s all like that.  It’s a wonderful fantasy.  That, to me, is program building.  It’s wonderful.

BD:    Which work was first and which was second?

MB:    I think I did his first, but it was a whole first half.  It wasn’t just a token piece.  It was about twenty-five minutes, and that was good preparation for the second part.  I thought it was excellent.

BD:    When you’re looking at new works and thinking about living composers, do you have any advice for people who want to write for the orchestra or for the voice?

MB:    I would say think of the limitations of a certain voice.  All the composers in the eighteenth century always wrote for particular people, and what is good for one person would not be, perhaps, good for another.  Think of Mozart writing the same aria twice, because he had a change of singers.  But also think of the audience.  We have now turned the cycle, and we’re going into something that is simpler and a little bit more.  I’m talking about some of your good American composers, it seems to me, such as Corigliano and people like that, not to talk about Glass, of course.  There’s nothing wrong with being simple and being direct, and all this crap about this method or that method — I think that’s against the music.  I don’t believe it.  I believe that the twelve tones as a system, for instance, was an utter failure, actually.  It only comes alive when you have somebody like Berg, who could have written any other ways, too, I’m sure.


BD:    So it was a blind alley?

MB:    I think so.

BD:    But should we have gone through that blind alley?

MB:    Maybe, just to find out that it was blind, if for no other reason.

BD:    Then should we consign all of the other twelve-tone composers besides Berg to the trash heap?

MB:    Oh, no.  Webern, and the founder of the twelve-tone system, Schoenberg obviously have wonderful things.

BD:    But saving a few of these great master works, should we then be rid of all of the rest of the lesser lights?

MB:    To a certain extent, yes.  The people just followed because that was the rule.  The book says do this or that, and there are fairly strict rules about it that go nowhere.  That’s not music; that’s maybe mathematics, I don’t know, but not music.  Now it seems to me we’ve gone really away from that.  What’s wrong with color?  Even if you don’t have too much shape but wonderful coloristic ideas, you can know how to use instruments to their absolute maximum capacity.  It’s very exciting.

BD:    Learn from Rimsky-Korsakov and Ravel?

MB:    Well, exactly.  I mean twentieth composers, so Ravel, at least.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Now when you come to an orchestra such as this in Grant Park and you’re working on some programs, you’re only here for a few days.  Can you make this orchestra your own?

MB:    I hope so.  At the end of the day, I thought they were already playing really as an orchestra.  Don’t forget, this is the first day of rehearsal for this summer season and there are a lot of new players.

BD:    But what about from your vast experience coming to different orchestras all over the world?

bernardi MB:    Oh, it can happen.  It can happen that in a couple of days you make them play in a certain way that is yours.  I conducted in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago, and there was a person that works for a British record company.  I was working with a couple of singers, and they told me that in their tour they had had some bad experiences with conductors and orchestras.  So this record executive came after the second rehearsal and said, “They sounded bloody marvelous!”  I said, “Well, it is a good orchestra.”  “No, no,” she said.  “I’ve heard other good orchestras, and they sound really good.  You make them sound like a good orchestra.”  I didn’t know what I did, but the singers were quite happy and that’s the main thing, really.  Yes, you can do it.  It’s very difficult to do here because of the physical situation.  It’s not the best.  You’re out in the open and you have to get used to the noises that you can’t do anything about, such as traffic, planes, birds.  But then to make matters worse, in the middle of the rehearsal this morning a truck came.  They were spraying water about forty feet from us, and it was the loudest noise!  I said, “Why can’t he go to the other side of the park and start there?  Come and do this side later.” 

BD:    And yet, out of all of this you’re supposed to make brilliant music!

MB:    That’s right.

BD:    [Remaining positive about the situation]  But you’ll succeed.

MB:    Oh, I will.  Absolutely.  I’ve never known a conductor not to be quite set and confident.

BD:    We were talking about program-building a moment ago.  Does the fact that this is going to be an outdoor concert influence the kinds of repertoires that you will or will not use?

MB:    Had I really thought about it, it probably would have affected me.  It’s too late to do now.  We did the Schumann Second Symphony, which is for me a divine work.  It’s just so beautifully conceived, and for me it’s one of the great Romantic works.  But it is very subtle.  The third movement, the slow movement, is so gorgeous and its inner musician really feels that.  So to play it in an open space like this seems like a waste of good music.  I  should have done some other music, something more bombastic, more brilliant, where finesse is not particularly an element.

BD:    And yet there will be people in the audience who will get all of your subtleties.

MB:    Oh, I would think so.  The other thing, of course, about this inimical place is the fact that it is all being amplified, and the guy at the knobs will have as much to do as with the way its sounds as I do.

BD:    Should you try to coordinate with him?

MB:    Where I am I don’t know the result of his work, because it only takes effect at a distance.  So what am I going to do?  Should I let him conduct, and go out and see what it
’s like?

BD:    If you have enough time, would you perhaps ask the concert master just to lead for ten minutes so you could go out and listen?

MB:    It might be an idea, yes.  I also wonder, when you have ten thousand or twenty thousand people there, whether it wouldn’t change again.

BD:    It’s not going to absorb the sound the way an audience in a house will absorb it.

MB:    No, but I wonder if it will absorb at all.  I don’t know.

BD:    Well, you can push the knob up just a little bit.  [Both laugh]

MB:    There’s always that danger.

BD:    You have a fascination for Robert Schumann and have recorded all of his symphonies.

MB:    Yes.  Of course, being a pianist and having come to music through piano, I would have discovered Schumann because he’s a wonderful piano writer.  I remember in my student days, his G Minor Sonata was already one of my very favorite works; and the Kreisleriana.  I remember doing that, too, and many, many other things.  His songs are wonderful.  His chamber music, too, although that’s not quite on the same level, I feel.  The Quartet I don’t think is his best work.

BD:    Of the recordings you have made, are these from CBC broadcasts, or are these made in the studio, cut and paste, like ordinary recordings?

MB:    These are made in a studio, cut and paste.  We also do many, many broadcasts with the orchestra.


BD:    So my question is, do you conduct differently for the microphone than you do for a live concert?  And of course, then you have the extra joker of sometimes having the live concert with the microphone, also.

MB:    What happens, actually, is before we make a record we try to do at least one performance so that you get out of the mechanical part of recording.  That way the players really know the piece from A to Zed.  Then sometime later we record it.  Really there’s no difference.  We try to recreate on disk what we played.  It doesn’t always work, mind you.  [Laughs]  I find recording very stressful.

BD:    Why?

MB:    I suppose it
’s the idea that it’s going to be there forever.  Once it’s on that tape and then a plastic disc, it’s there forever.  I’ve heard of other people that have the same kind of phobia.  One of them was Szell.  Apparently he was always nervous, and some of his best performances were live performances which were taped unbeknownst to him.  I once heard a tape of a concert he did of the Sibelius Second Symphony.  I think it was somewhere in Japan, and it was just wonderful!  It was perfect, and everything was just right.  The music breathed and so on.  It was just a live performance and he had no idea that somebody was taping it.

bernardi BD:    Does this enter your psyche at all when you’re doing a live performance?  You think no one is taping it, and yet if you’re doing, say, a broadcast, probably someone is taping off the radio somewhere.

MB:    The broadcast is usually played once.  That’s it, and it has to be thrown away, so there’s nothing permanent about that.  Anyway, whether it is a live broadcast or a recording, it’s always taped because I have a radio orchestra.  I’m really not particularly scared of microphones anymore.  You learn how to listen for certain things, for details and so on.  But still, making a record, which is quite distinct as making a broadcast, is still stressful.  There is also the fact that you really haven’t got a minute to spare.  You start, and you do a line-up.  You prepare, so that the heat of the music is being heard in the right way.  After about 25 minutes, you do one take of a movement, or part of a movement, then you pull.  The orchestra has a ten-minute break while you go down and listen.  You say, “Oh, this is wrong.  I want more of this, more of that,” and so on.  Then you go back and do more takes, at least two good takes, and then you do little cosmetic work to dub in, and so on.  Then you go and listen to that.  If you have two sessions of three hours, you literally have not heard it all once.  You run to the control room to listen, and then you know the clock is going ding, ding, ding, ding.  Your break is over.  It’s absolutely exhausting!

BD:    If you had unlimited time to make the record, would it be appreciably different?

MB:    Possibly, yes.  Possibly, in many cases but not always.  For instance, one of the Schumann disks I have made has the Concerto for Four Horns, which is rather an abominable piece to being with.  I don’t know about Chicago, but I have hardly ever seen it on a program.

BD:    We’ve had it here with the Chicago Symphony a couple of times, but then our horn section is the glory of the world!

MB:    This is by way of saying that the chances of getting even close to a perfect performance are almost nil, because somebody’s going to crack.  So in a way it’s better to record it because you can do it.  If something does happen you do it again, but you only have three hours to do it in.  And as the three hours elapse, the horns get tired, and more tired, and more tired!  So there’s a certain point of no return.  After that, you just don’t get anything.

BD:    You should schedule to record it over a few days.  Use the first part this day, then the first part of another day...

MB:    That would be a really perfect world, where you had unlimited resources.  I suppose in the old days, in Russia, they may have done that.  If it didn’t work well, you just come the next day.  Everybody works every day.

BD:    Is there any such thing as musical perfection?

MB:    I don’t think so.  Even when you think that you have done something so bloody well, then maybe two years later you hear the tape and you despair!  What did I do that for?  But that’s what
’s good about music because it’s something that is so impalpable.  It is completely, utterly, of the heart and the mind.  It doesn’t exist. You see the piece of printed music there, but that doesn’t exist until somebody plays it.  And being human, of course, everybody will interpret that piece of paper in a different way.  So how can you have perfection?  How can you say, “This is better than that” even though they play exactly the same notes?  How can you have two fantastic performances of the same piece, and one is ten minutes longer than the other?  They’re both right.

BD:    That’s it.

MB:    I think so. [Laughs]

BD:    When you’re working on a recording, and you cut and piece it together, is there any time when it actually becomes a fraud?

MB:    How do you mean, a fraud?

BD:    It’s something that never really existed because you put it together from several takes.

MB:    Well, in that sense, yes, it is.  Every recording is a fraud.  There are very, very few incidences — and this is very desirable — where sometimes it happens.  For instance, you do a piece and you slave over it, and you do all bits and pieces, but somehow it doesn’t work.  Then after all this, hours after you started working, you say, “Okay, let’s just try and do it right through,” and sometime that works.  There are very rare occasions where you get a whole movement that is one take, but I can count those occasions in the fingers of one hand over the last twenty years or so.

BD:    Those must be very special.

MB:    Oh yes, but I wouldn’t call the other one a fraud.  We have thought about the piece.  It is a performance that is unified because the same people are playing, and it is the same conductor.  Sometimes you do a bit of it one day and then finish it the next day, which makes it very difficult because you have to remember how you did the previous day so there’s a coherence there.

BD:    So they can intercut?

MB:    They can, yes, but if you have a slight different tempo, for instance, you can’t intercut in the middle.

BD:    I thought this was what you were saying about having to remember so exactly.

MB:    Exactly, that’s right.  Otherwise [laughs] it is a fraud, then.  But generally speaking, we have this wonderful technology that can do this, and we use it to the maximum.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s go back to live concerts for a moment.  You’re rehearsing, and do you do everything to get it all correct.  Is everything set in the rehearsal, or do you purposely leave something for the spark of the evening?


MB:    There’s always a little bit of spark, I would hope just a little bit of nervousness there, because there’s people, and you can’t stop and go back and do it again.  That makes it different from recording where you might relax, and then you’re ready to stop.  In any case, I don’t leave too much undone.  In opera I am very conscious of the time and how you progress, especially the last week or so of rehearsals.  You don’t want to progress too fast.

BD:    You don’t want to peak too early?

MB:    No, that’s right.  The old saying that if you have a good dress rehearsal your opening night will be less good, is, perhaps, true.  I purposely leave something in reserve at the dress rehearsal.  There has to be something, even if there’s a house full of people.  Usually dress rehearsals are in front of invited audience, but it has to be a rehearsal.  It can’t be the finished product.  There has to be the extra push for the opening night.  Usually in a concert it doesn’t happen that way because you never have that kind of length of time with a piece.  In opera you spend practically a month rehearsing before you ever go on stage, so it’s very important that it happens.

BD:    If you get the extra push from the opening night, what about the second and third and fifth and eighth performances?

bernardi MB:    The second performance is the most difficult, especially if the first performance has gone very well.  Then you really have to watch like mad.  I usually tell everybody at the second performance to be very careful, because if you let down we know it.

BD:    Do you purposely do something to shake them up?

MB:    They know that I’m working harder, which usually works.  Sometimes that also fails.  The harder you work, the worse it gets.  But the repetition of something is another challenge, completely.  I spent six years in England doing practically only opera, with what was then called Sadler’s Wells Opera.

BD:    They do everything in English there.

MB:    Everything in English, yes.  That is a little bit ridiculous now in this day and age of surtitles or supertitles.  Generally speaking they’re a very good idea.  I was talking to Miss von Stade this morning, and she was saying we should have those for recitals as well.  It’s not a bad idea where she is going on in German or Russian, or whatever especially in a recital where there’s no staging to look at in any case.  But to come back to repetition, when I was at Sadlers Wells, one work that I remember was a new production of Madame Butterfly.  It was well rehearsed and well prepared, and it was a success.

BD:    Was that the production of the original version?

MB:    We did take some of the original music that had been cut, and reinstated it.  The part of the tenor’s wife, the American, Kate was, in fact, a bit larger.  She had something to sing.  But in one season I did 38 performances of that opera.  Just imagine what it was like by number 30, 31, 32!  It became harder and harder to find something to say.

BD:    And yet, the 2500 people behind you were all new to the production.

MB:    They had paid the same money as the 24th, or the second, or the first performance, so they had every right to hear as good a performance as I could give them.  But it was damned difficult.  Incidentally, that particular opera I never conducted again.  It was like overeating on something, and you’re just sickened by it.  It doesn’t happen with many other works.  Somehow, that work really put me off.  I’ve done Figaro, for instance, at least 100 performances, but nowhere, nowhere in sight am I ever going to be bored with that.  It is such a wonderful piece!

BD:    Tell me the joys and sorrows of working with the human voice.

MB:    I’ve always liked the human voice.  I think every musician should listen and learn from singers.  The jokes going that tenors are stupid or sopranos are stupid, that’s nonsense.  I don’t know how it was, maybe before I got into the business, but now to be a professional singer means you have to be a damn good musician.  Since a singer has to breathe, which a pianist or even a conductor doesn’t have to do, you really learn phrasing.  You learn how to put one note after the other.  I think the greatest teachers that I’ve ever had have been singers.  Really, they didn’t know they were teaching.

BD:    You learned about music from working with them?

MB:    Absolutely.  I’ve had the fortune to work with fantastic singers.  Bartoli, my gosh!  What a wonderful singer she is!

BD:    And I assume Maureen Forester, also?

MB:    Oh, yes.  She was wonderful.  I don’t think she’s singing very much anymore.  She’s about 65 now. 


BD:    Speaking of 65, you are about to turn 65. 
[Both were born in 1930Forrester on July 25, Bernardi on August 10.  This interview took place on June 15, 1995.Are you pleased with where your career has taken you thus far?

MB:    Oh, I’ve had a wonderful life.  I suppose one of the problems is that the more successful you are, the more you travel, which means you see less and less of your family.  I have a daughter who is now 26.  She was born in London, England.  We came back to Canada when she was six months old and she lived in Ottawa for the next thirteen years, which was wonderful.  Then we moved to Toronto, and from the time she was about thirteen or so, I really hadn’t seen her.  She’s now 26, and a couple of years ago she said, “Dad, you never were there when I was growing up.”  Thank the Lord that she’s wonderful girl, and no problems at all, but she really grew up without a father.  There was one year when my family and I lived in Toronto, but I had an orchestra in Calgary, and I had a lot to do in Vancouver as well.  So, Toronto was Christmas.  If I was lucky I would have maybe a week in the spring sometime around Easter or so, and then the summer.  But in the summer she always went to camp.  So as I got home at about mid-June or so, she would be just leaving.  If I was lucky I would see her for about two or three days, and then she would come back at the end of August, by which time I was just ready to go, and it would be Christmas again.  But career-wise, yes, I’ve had wonderful, wonderful experiences.  Calgary was very good, too.  I spent nine wonderful years learning the big repertoire, and did a lot of recordings.  The orchestra is really immeasurably better than when I took it.  They are very, very good, and of course, the National Arts Centre Orchestra is, also.

BD:    That was your baby.

MB:    Yes.  I’ve gone back now a couple of times.  I’m doing Nozze di Figaro with them in the fall, which is where I started.  It was the first opera I ever produced.  I hope it’s an omen of things to come.  They all think that I’m going to start an opera festival there again, but there’s no way I can.  There’s just no money anymore, and that is sad.

BD:    All in all, is conducting fun?

MB:    Oh, yes.  It’s wonderful!  And it’s not as easy as it looks, but I suppose the fun is trying to make it look easy.  [Both laugh]  It’s also very stressful.  Even this morning I was almost nervous.  I don’t know what about.  They’re wonderful bunch of people here at Grant Park that work very hard.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me throw you a real curve.  Tell me about the Concerto for Piano (1955-56) by Barbara Pentland (1912-2000).

bernardi MB:    [Completely surprised]  Why?  [Laughs]

BD:    I have a Radio Canada Transcription Disc of your performance of it!

MB:    Is it legal? 

BD:    Oh yes, we have license to broadcast it.  [Many of the broadcast recordings made by the CBC are now available to the general public as LPs, CDs, or downloads.

MB:    That was one of the very first things I did for the CBC, and I don’t even remember very much about it.  It was only about ten instruments, or something like that.  It’s a very astringent kind of music.  I did also another one by a French Canadian composer named Jean Papineau-Coutoure (1916-2000) called Repliement (1957), which means folding-back.  [Pièce Concertante No. 1 for Piano and String Orchestra.]  It goes from A to B and back to A.  The second A section is a mirror image of the first, and then it works back to the beginning.

BD:    Oh, like Hin und zurück?  [There and back, an operatic sketch (Op. 45a) in one scene by Paul Hindemith.  He wrote the piece for a collection of miniature operas presented on July 17, 1927 at the Baden-Baden Music Festival in the Theater Baden-Baden.  The work lasts for just 12 minutes.  Other short works by Darius Milhaud (L'enlèvement d'Europe), Kurt Weill (Mahagonny-Songspiel) and Ernst Toch (Die Prinzessin auf der Erbse) were performed on the same evening.  In a kind of dramatic palindrome, a tragedy unfolds involving jealousy, murder and suicide, and is then replayed with the lines sung in reverse order to produce a happy ending.]

MB:    [Very pleased that BD knew the reference]  Yes, like Hin und zurück!

BD:    Do you ever get the chance to play piano anymore?

MB:    [Sighs]  I play it for rehearsals.  I play through scores.  I can play any score, practically, and it’s useful.  This morning with von Stade, for instance, we had a piano rehearsal, and I was able to play my own rehearsal.  The last time I played seriously was about two years ago.  I did Ch
io mi scordi di te, a wonderful concert aria for soprano and I was my own obbligato.  I do play the harpsichord in the Mozart operas.  I have enjoyed doing that very much.

BD:    Sir John Pritchard used to do that.  He told me he got a big bang out of doing that.

bernardi MB:    I enjoy it, and maybe I make too much of it, but the recitatives come almost like a leitmotif opera.  I like to quote other Mozart operas.  I suppose this is wrong, but for instance, in one of the very first or second recitatives of Figaro and Susanna when they are having their two little duets and she says, “The count is tired of this local adventure,” I play [sings] ya-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pom-pom-pom [to the tune of Don Giovanni
s Serenade, shown at right].

BD:    [Laughs]  Of course, that’s backwards because Don Giovanni was written after Figaro.  In Don Giovanni Mozart quotes himself from Figaro!  [Laughs]

MB:    That’s right!

BD:    So you quote something that hasn’t happened yet.  [Both have a huge laugh]

MB:    Of course! 

BD:    Thank you for coming to Chicago.  We have all been looking forward to it.

MB:    Oh, I love your city.  I absolutely love this place!  It’s very interesting, a beautiful city!  I have a fantastic view from my window here, and the weather is wonderful, which is a good thing if you’re playing outside.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  We don’t have many outdoor concerts in February, I’m afraid. 

MB:    [Laughs]  No.  It can get very humid, I gather, very wet in the summer.  That can be very uncomfortable, but it’s predicted that it’s going to be fine this week.

BD:    Good.  I hope you return often.  [Bernardi would conduct Pearl Fishers at Lyric Opera of Chicago during the 1997-98 season, featuring Marueen O
’Flynn, Paul Groves, Gino Quilico, and Raymond Aceto.]

MB:    Thank you


© 1995 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on June 15, 1995.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB later that year, and again in 2000.  This transcription was made in 2015, and posted on this website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.