Transcript 01- An Orchestra is born: The Bernardi Years

From the Podcast Series: Eric Friesen Presents the NAC Orchestra

Eric Friesen: Hi I'm Eric Friesen - welcome to the first chapter in this history of the NACO. A new orchestra is born - the Bernardi years!

You're listening to the National Arts Centre Orchestra from its earliest days, led by Mario Bernardi. The date, December 9th, 1970, the orchestra playing some of its patented Mozart, the Overture to Cosi Fan Tutte. At this point the orchestra is just over a year old, but as you can hear, already a first class ensemble. The story of the National Arts Centre Orchestra is the story of a Canadian musical miracle, and in this first of six programs on the history of the orchestra, I'm going to take you back to the beginning. Well, maybe even before the beginning, to the Canada of the 1950's and 60's that was to make possible the National Arts Centre. It's a story of powerful historical forces and the equally powerful men who saw an opportunity to create a great arts centre in our nation's capital, and a resident orchestra to go with it...

Music clip

Eric Friesen: Mario Bernardi conducting Mozart - the Overture Cosi Fan Tutte, Dec 9th, 1970. In the brand new Opera, as the main concert hall of the National Arts Center was known in those days. We now know it as Southam Hall.

In a way, the founding of the National Arts Centre goes back to the immediate period right after World War II. Ottawa writer/broadcaster Sarah Jennings has written the definitive history of the place called “Art and Politics: The History of the NAC.” She sets the scene...

Sarah Jennings: Both in Europe and North America there was this kind of ground swell of a desire to bring, to broaden, the interest in the arts. And of course Canada benefited from a great wave of extremely cultivated immigrants in all artistic disciplines who became the sort of foundation people for our ballet dance and music. But here in Ottawa, there was an Ottawa philharmonic at that time; the sort of musical appetite was served mainly by various concert series which were brought through the city. And these, there was no hall, they played in high school auditoriums, they played in the Capital Theatre which was a former movie theatre here in the city, there was no space. About a decade before the Arts Center became a reality, or the idea finally got launched, Mr. Massey - Vincent Massey was the Governor General - had made a speech here in Ottawa talking about the whole idea of festivals after the war. Do you remember we had the Edinburgh Festival; it was kind of a craze after the war, the festival of Britain and so on. It was kind of a recognition of the resurgence of life after this dreadful period. And Mr. Massey gave a speech here in Ottawa, saying we really should have a festival here but the key problem was that there was no building. Where would they put it? So that idea sank into the heads of a number of sort of leading figures in the city, and they weren't all talking to each other by the way, but the idea certainly penetrated. And then, over a period of years, as we moved into the 60s and the prospect of the 100th anniversary of Canada was coming in 1967, then the idea began to take real shape. That's how it got started.

Eric Friesen: Before Vincent Massey made that speech in Ottawa, he had already led a Royal Commission in 1949-1951, the so-called Massey Commission which created among other things the Canada Council for the Arts. So, there was a building demand for the development of the arts in that post war period. There was Canada's approaching Centennial in 1967. And there was the general feeling that Ottawa simply did not have the cultural life worthy of a national capital. Ottawa did have music - the Montreal Symphony Orchestra visited many times, as did great soloists like Vladimir Horowitz. But as Alexander Ross wrote in MacLean's magazine at the opening of the NAC: “Ottawa has spent too many years watching ballet and symphony performances in the tennis-shoe atmosphere of high school auditoriums.” It's a tad cruel perhaps, but not so far off the mark. So, Ottawa musical lovers, the diplomats who were posted to their embassies here, and politicians were increasingly primed and ready for our nation's capital to take a big cultural step.

Enter the star in the early part of this story - Hamilton Southam. Hamilton Southam was a son of a wealthy Canadian publishing family, a decorated veteran of World War II, and a diplomat. He was ambassador to Poland in the early 60's and then came back to Ottawa, where he used his passion for the arts and his skill as a diplomat to get the idea of a National Arts Centre going. Hamilton Southam rallied the local community arts organizations, created something called the National Capital Arts Alliance, and then went to Parliament Hill. Sarah Jennings...

Sarah Jennings: He got the idea of the National Capital Arts Alliance and then they had to persuade the government that they should undertake this project. And they had an ace card. And that was Prime Minister Lester Pearson.

Eric Friesen: Why was he an ace card?

Sarah Jennings: Well Mr. Pearson wanted a special project for Ottawa for the centennial year. We are now at 1963. He was casting about for an idea, and Mr. Southam turned up at the right moment with the right idea. They were very close personal friends, which proved to be extremely important in the ongoing process, and especially in the construction of the building. They were on very close personal terms; Mr. Southam could pick up the phone and call Mr. Pearson at a moment's notice. Mr. Southam's sister had been courted by Mr. Pearson, so there were lots of close and small, and important ties than enabled things to get done. This led to the next step, to the creation of the office of the coordinator to actually do the project. Mr. Southam was appointed the coordinator.

Eric Friesen: From coordinator to eventually becoming the first Director-General of the National Arts Center. I remember Hamilton Southam from those early years of the NAC, and saw him again here at the Center not so many months before his death July 1st, 2008, at the age of 91. If you ever met Hamilton Southam you'll know why the NAC not only happened, but why it became a world-class arts centre. He was dashing, charismatic, he was patrician, he was enormously persuasive, he had access to everyone in Ottawa, he had a passion for the arts, and an equal passion for excellence, and just wouldn't take no for an answer. So through those years, 1963 to 1969 when the NAC opened, Hamilton Southam steered the developing ship. The bill went from $9 million to an eventual $46 million, but through it all Hamilton Southam kept the support of first Prime Minister Pearson and then Prime Minister Trudeau.

Now I'm compressing a lot of history here, but for those of you who want to know more, there's Sarah Jennings exhaustive history of the NAC called “Art and Politics” published by the Dundurn Group.

So, the NAC opened in June 1969, two years after our Centennial. A new, modern, three hall house, a 2300 seat opera house, an 800 seat theatre and a 300 seat Studio. All encased in a series of hexagonal boxes on what is known in Ottawa as Confederation Square, on the Rideau Canal, pointing towards the War Memorial and Parliament Hill. As Prime Minister Trudeau put it with his typical wit, the NAC was situated right near “that other publically supported playhouse across the street.” At any rate, right in the heart of downtown Ottawa, there sits the NAC. There was tremendous excitement in the city, and even across the country. There were a number of gala opening concerts from visiting orchestras and ballet companies and others. Jean-Jacques Van Vlasselaer, who had just arrived in Canada from Belgium, and would later become the noted French music critic for Le Droit and a professor at Carleton University, remembers his excitement at that opening week, June 1969:

Jean-Jacques Van Vlasselaer: Yes, as a music lover, you know I said finally we're going to have some very good concerts. Before there were only a few concerts at the movie house. I went to a few of the concerts of the opening, a ballet night which was Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, and of course one of the great concerts was the Montreal Symphony Orchestra conducted by Franz Paul Decker, and the first act of Die Walkure. And with great singers of course, John Vickers and Regine Crespin. It was a great evening.

Eric Friesen: (Laughs) It doesn't get any better than that!

Jean-Jacques Van Vlasselaer: It doesn't get any better. And they were in super shape both of them. Beautiful!

Eric Friesen: Another person who remembers that opening week like it was yesterday, is Ottawa native Evelyn Greenberg. She's a pianist, teacher and she founded the National Arts Centre Orchestra Association, essentially a booster club for the band, and someone who's been to most of the concerts at the NAC over the past 40 years. Her first impressions:

Evelyn Greenburg: Well it wasn't like Ottawa (laughs). First of all, the building itself was strange. Everything faced the canal. It was a bit fortress looking. As soon as we walked in we realized we weren't in a fortress. We were in a magic Brinks vault! There was so much wonderful music going on and arts in general. I think it was brilliantly designed in my opinion. And the hall works acoustically – very, very good.

Eric Friesen : Evelyn Greenberg. Now I'll quote one more testimonial. I've spent many hours pouring through the archives at the NAC and this letter caught my eye. It's from the late novelist Robertson Davies, who wrote to Hamilton Southam three days after the opening gala:

I felt great pride in the beauty of the building and in particular the Opera House, which seems to me to make the one in Lincoln Centre look a very poor creation indeed. You have done something of enormous importance in the task of ridding Canada of a stream of provincialism and I am sure that the example of the Centre will influence building all across the country… Robertson Davies.

It was the building that opened that June in 1969, it wasn't until October of that year, October 7th, that the National Arts Centre Orchestra made its debut.

All the while the building was going up, Hamilton Southam was busy creating a resident orchestra for the Centre. And now a decision had to be made. Would the NAC be built on the Brussels model - that is a centre with all the performing arts groups coming from elsewhere? Or on the Stratford model, with resident companies - orchestra, theatre, and ballet? Hamilton Southam wanted a resident orchestra. And other leaders like Jean Gascon, the actor and theatre director, wanted the same for their disciplines. Jean Gascon famously said that the NAC “must have a heart that beats.” Ultimately the decision was made to go with resident companies, the Stratford model, although in the end only one resident company would survive - the orchestra.

It seems Hamilton Southam wanted the NAC to have an orchestra right from his earliest visions for the place. One of his first partners in this was the conductor and CBC senior music executive - Jean-Marie Beaudet. Beaudet was first a consultant for Hamilton Southam and would ultimately become the first Music Director of the orchestra for two short years, 1969-71. Other support came from men like Louis Applebaum, composer, conductor and administrator. Lou Applebaum had chaired one of the critical advisory committees that led to the creation of the NAC and the orchestra. These were bold men with a broad and generous vision.

I just want to pause for a moment and recognize the important early contribution of Jean-Marie Beaudet. He's kind of the forgotten man in the formation and early history of the National Arts Center Orchestra. He was, as I said, the first music director, but sadly he had a severe stroke almost as soon as the orchestra was formed and died in 1971.

The most important discussion after deciding there would be an orchestra, was how big an orchestra? Ultimately it was cast as a classical period size orchestra... about 45 players. Not a full symphony orchestra, but larger than a chamber orchestra. In 1968, Jean-Marie Beaudet was interviewed for a CBC documentary on the creation of the Centre, and talked about the orchestra's size...

(Clip of documentary) - Jean Marie Beaudet: It's original in Canada because it's really the first orchestra of its type, it's a classical orchestra, or if you want to call it, a Mozart orchestra. It's not a symphony orchestra by any means; it's an enlarged chamber orchestra. It offers you the possibility of doing chamber music, but there's a vast repertoire that is, can I use the word neglected, by the large symphonies for obvious reasons. You know when you start thinking about all the Mozart and Haydn symphonies, you know, these are almost unlimited and you have the contemporary repertoire. The only thing that we can't touch is really the large romantic works.

Eric Friesen: the late Jean-Marie Beaudet. He argued the artistic merits of the 45-person orchestra. Sarah Jennings puts the decision in more political terms...

Sarah Jennings: I think this was a strong political issue and, of course as things began to bubble up here and germinate, and it looked as though it was really going to happen, then some people in the musical world began to get a little agitated. People like Walter Homburger at the Toronto Symphony, probably he would be the most prominent example that he was thinking, my goodness they're going to steal my musicians and why does Ottawa need an orchestra? I've got an orchestra, I'll bring it to Ottawa. There was an enormous amount of lobbying and very much at the political level. This institution has always been at the mercy of the kind of political process that other artistic organizations in the country aren't quite so subjected to. You know, there would be appeals to Toronto MPs to speak to Mitchell Sharp or whoever in the cabinet, so there was definitely some resistance no question about it against the creation of an orchestra here. As the planners here began to think it out, I think, my own view is that they thought of a number of issues and of course, cost was one. The other was touring the orchestra. They wanted this to be a national orchestra. In some of Beaudet's original memos he speaks, always in quotes of our national orchestra. So they already had a vision of how this orchestra would be Canada's orchestra, would tour out to the boondocks, to the different major cities and so on. Of course, subsequently, that's precisely what they did. So over time, the idea of having a sort of tight knit, small scale, but fleet footed, exquisite troop, orchestral group is what began to emerge. It fit the purpose for a whole lot of reasons as I've explained.

Eric Friesen: Sarah Jennings. Well fleet foot and exquisite it became very quickly.

Music clip

Eric Friesen: Mario Bernardi leading the National Arts Centre Orchestra, Jan 7th, 1971. With the great János Starker as soloist in Haydn's Cello Concerto in C Major.

As you and I listen to this orchestra even from its earliest years, it's really hard to believe how quickly it came together, and was almost immediately a superb band. Jean-Marie Beaudet was appointed the first Music Director, but although he was also a conductor, he knew the orchestra would need a full time conductor, someone who would train and mould a new group of players into a really good orchestra right off the bat. He and Hamilton Southam and the board of the NAC were thinking big - they wanted the best. Maybe they could convince George Szell or Charles Munch to take the job. How about Sir John Barbirolli? But canny Jean-Marie Beaudet had his eye on a young Canadian born conductor then living in London, England, Mario Bernardi. Bernardi was Music Director at what was then the Sadler's Wells Opera Company (now known as the English National Opera). But Bernardi had already done a lot of conducting in his native Canada. After an initial meeting in Stratford in the summer of 1967 where Mario was conducting opera, Jean-Marie Beaudet, Hamilton Southam and the first Board Chair, Larry Freiman, went to London to meet with Mario Bernardi, at the Savage Club. Mario Bernardi remembers being kind of dubious about the whole idea, at first...

Mario Bernardi: Well I wasn't quite sure that it was going to happen, first of all. Second of all, well, Ottawa you know, who wants to go to Ottawa? I remember the people at the Wells couldn't even spell Ottawa (laughs). It just was not on the map as a musical center.

Eric Friesen: So, Bernardi resisted at first. He had his doubts about the whole Ottawa venture and besides he was enjoying himself in London. But there was something niggling at the back of his mind.

Mario Bernardi: I was quite happy in London. But getting worried about the fact that I would be sought after as an opera conductor only, and I wanted desperately to do something more.

Eric Friesen: To do more than opera?

Mario Bernardi: That's right. It's amazing but people do pigeonhole you. If you do opera, especially with a name like mine, obviously I can't do anything else right.

Eric Friesen: (Laughing) Because you're Italian right?

Mario Bernardi: Right.

Eric Friesen: So, Bernardi was happy in London, but worried about being typecast as just an opera conductor. He began to see that the new proposed National Arts Center Orchestra might be just the thing for him.

Mario Bernardi: But maybe, beside the fact that I was going to do exactly what I wanted to do, and that was something none operatic. That was uttermost in my mind. And also the idea of starting something completely anew, completely, did not exist before and I would follow it. It was indeed exciting, very exciting.

Eric Friesen: Before leaving London and moving to Ottawa, and before beginning auditions for the orchestra, Mario Bernardi and Jean-Marie Beaudet needed a concertmaster. Again, that eagle eye Mr. Beaudet had his eye on someone, a young Torontonian who had played for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the CBC Orchestra in Toronto, but was now working in Switzerland. His name, Walter Prystawski. Walter was concertmaster of the Basel Orchestra in Switzerland, and before that of the Lucerne Festival Strings. His part of the National Arts Center Orchestra story begins right after Christmas 1968. Walter and his wife Vicki had been in Toronto visiting family, and he picks up the story from there...

Walter Prystawski: I got back to Basel about New Years and, one of the letters that was waiting for me was one from Jean-Marie Beaudet asking if I would be interested in this kind of a position, what was happening, and if I were interested then perhaps we could meet some time at my… at his convenience actually because he was traveling through Europe at the time.

Eric Friesen: What was your first reaction when you got the letter?

Walter Prystawski: Well it was, oh! (Laughs) It was… Vicky and I were ready to… our kids were both born in Switzerland, we were ready to live there the rest of our lives. But, well, it was the idea… it was a new orchestra, it was something I wasn't going back into a machinery that already existed and that I would become a part of. This was actually going to be, it felt like anyways, part of the construction of the machinery.

Eric Friesen: So that attracted you?

Walter Prystawski: Very much.

Eric Friesen: Right. And then did you meet then with Jean-Marie Beaudet shortly after that?

Walter Prystawski: Uh, yeah. There were a lot of missed steps on the way. Actually, and thanks to a simply casual friendship that my wife had struck up with the travel agent (laughs) I managed to get to London on a crucial day to meet and play for both Jean-Marie and for Mario, Mario Bernardi, which was then kind of a decisive thing.

Eric Friesen: Right. So you did an audition essentially for both of them?

Walter Prystawski: Yes. That's right.

Eric Friesen: How did it go?

Walter Prystawski: Well, it was fine. They were happy. Or at least they seemed to be perfectly satisfied. They eventually wrote me to confirm.

Eric Friesen: And thus would begin a 38-year career stop for Walter Prystawski. For 38 of this orchestra's 40 years he was the concertmaster of the National Arts Center Orchestra, and an absolutely critical player in the life of the band.

Meantime, Mario Bernardi, with the help of Jean-Marie Beaudet and consultants like Lorand Fenyves, the brilliant Toronto based violinist, were auditioning players from all over the world. I think there were something like 400 - 500 players who applied for the job. The priority, actually there were two priorities, the first one was to find Canadian players, the second was not to raid existing orchestras, especially Toronto and Montreal. Elaine Klimasko was a young 19-year old violinist from Hamilton, and this is her story of coming to the National Arts Center Orchestra.

Elaine Klimasko: Working with the National Ballet of Canada just more or less took a year off to make some money to sort of decide what sort of direction I was going to take. I mean I knew it was going to be music so I did a tour with them. I was studying with Lorand Fenyves at the time, a wonderful teacher in Toronto. And he said, look at, there's a new orchestra forming in Ottawa, it's going to be called the National Arts Center Orchestra and you know it's always very good experience to go and do an audition. Even if you're not ready – he said I questioned if you are ready – but go and do it because it'll give you a good look at what it's all about when you are ready to enter the professional world.

Eric Friesen: Right, a good learning experience.

Elaine Klimasko: Exactly. So off I went and did, sort of my homework, and learned the excerpts with it. He was very fussy so I guess I can say they were quite well prepared. Those were the days when there was no fear and you know, we think of ourselves as being perhaps totally indispensable (laughs). So off I went. I had to fly to Montreal and I walked out onto the stage and there for sure ten gentlemen – they looked like older gentlemen to me – certainly at 19 they all looked a lot older than they probably were (laughs). They were all rather stone-faced and said, please begin. So I began, and once again I was thinking of my upcoming trip to Europe a little bit and not too concerned, just a learning experience. I played, and I was fortunate that I wasn't struck by nerves. And I just played my heart out.

Eric Friesen: So you finished the audition, did they say anything?

Elaine Klimasko: Yes, they did. They called me down off the stage, and I don't till this day know who it was that spoke to me, but they were all smiling and nodding and I thought, well I guess that's a good sign, but I still didn't really allow myself to think that maybe this was a job that I would actually get and whatever. I remember him saying, well you know in a situation like this he said, well anything in life it's 95% work and 5% talent. I didn't even perhaps get the message at that time (laughs).

Eric Friesen: Was he trying to tell you something or was he complimenting you?

Elaine Klimasko: I think a little bit of both.

Eric Friesen: Okay.

Elaine Klimasko: I think he realized I was, if I may be so immodest, a sort of natural kind of player and that it came rather effortlessly to me and that I enjoyed playing whatever. He was just trying to give me a life lesson early in life, nothing more than that. And I was off to see the world for three months on my own after this audition, hitchhiked all over Europe. Just before I left I got a letter saying that we would like to welcome you to being a member of the National Arts Center Orchestra, your salary will be blah, blah, blah, and um I thought great! No problem!

Eric Friesen: That was it? Very matter of fact.

Elaine Klimasko: It was quite matter of fact. And my goodness when I look at what the students have to go through today, these young people, I think I was lucky that I did this all in 1969 (laughs).

Eric Friesen: Elaine Klimasko, who was the youngest of that new band of 45 players in 1969 and who to this day is still with the NAC Orchestra, 40 years later. She is one of the five or six original players still here.

Mario Bernardi had three weeks in September of 1969 to gather these 45 players together and make them into an ensemble. Not only did he do that - but he very quickly created for this new orchestra a signature sound. Walter Prystawski says he wasn't aware of the demand to create that particular sound.

Walter Prystawski: What I was aware of though was that – and we all were- a lot of the time to our dismay, was that he was damn fussy about the basics: intonation, sound, balance, and ensemble, those things. He worked on those things as a result, particularly… No, I think the thing that was particularly important was his sense of balance. If anything had a direct bearing on the final sound it was that. How loud was the oboe going to be playing in relation to the cellos? How loud was he playing in relation to the other winds? This kind of thing, I think that was one of the main things that produced a particular individual sound.

Eric Friesen: “damn fussy about the basics” – well, if you know Mario that describes him to a tee. And there's no question, that he created a signature sound. I asked Mario himself to describe what he was looking for, and you can hear him define it in one word.

Mario Bernardi: Clarity. I would think that that was always on my mind. I was obviously impressed with the fact that we were a chamber orchestra, which makes ensemble even more critical. Also, we were playing in a hall that to my ears, at least in those years, sounded very dry. That means that the hall was not going to hide any of your mistakes.

Eric Friesen: (laughs) It was going to expose them right?

Mario Bernardi: Absolutely, absolutely. Clarity meant playing completely together in the same key. That's what I looked for, which meant that the repertoire that we were going to play – mostly baroque and so on, Mozart, early Beethoven and so on – would sound very good indeed. We became known for our clarity, for our neatness, for our ensemble playing.

Eric Friesen: There's not a hint of boast in that claim of Mario Bernardi's. This was an orchestra that became known for its clarity and precision and tight ensemble and neatness. Pianist Garrick Ohlsson who's been a guest of this orchestra for 35 years or more, and from the first time he played with the National Arts Center Orchestra, he dubbed them a “mini Cleveland Orchestra.” That's how good and characteristic they were right from the beginning. Others were even more poetic in their description of that sound. Evelyn Greenberg describes it as “Dresden China - everything perfectly in its place.” Wonderful description. Critic Jean-Jacques Van Vlasselaer calls the Bernardi NACO sound Apollonian” ...invoking a sound that is pure Platonic ideal.

Jean-Jacques Van Vlasselaer: It was the Apollonian sounds, and the ideal sounds. I think Bernardi is an idealist and he worked towards those absolute sounds. I gave another description to it at a given moment in an article, when other contacts started to come in after that very first period, after a few years anyhow. I said that Bernardi worked with watercolors and that his successor later worked with oil. It was refined drawings of the works. It had at the same time the clarity and the depth.

Eric Friesen: Bernardi always had this wonderful sense of tempo I think.

Jean-Jacques Van Vlasselaer: Oh yes. I think innate tempo. He didn't have to… he didn't play around with that. You know some conductors do.

Music Clip

Eric Friesen: Just a taste of that Apollonian sound, that sound of clarity, balance, precision, tight ensemble that was the signature of the National Arts Center Orchestra right from the earliest days. You heard Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting from the keyboard, the opening to Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.1 in C Major.

I'm Eric Friesen, you're listening to Eric Friesen presents the National Arts Center Orchestra 1, the first program in this series on the history of the orchestra: A New Orchestra is Born: The Bernardi Years.

You know, it's easy to look back now and take for granted what Mario Bernardi achieved. But at the time nobody was quite sure what could or would be achieved. Evelyn Greenberg remembers going to the first rehearsal and Mario Bernardi saying to his players and to a few people sitting in the mostly empty auditorium - “I feel like I'm the captain of a 747 and I don't know whether it's going to take off!”

But it did take off - and much of the credit goes to Mario. He was the right man for the job. He was tough, he was enormously disciplined, an incredibly hard worker, very demanding of his players, and suffered no fools. He makes no apologies for his approach, despite the fallout...

Mario Bernardi: At the end of the first year, I think I lost about a third of the orchestra. They couldn't hack it.

Eric Friesen: They couldn't hack it? What you were such a tough taskmaster?

Mario Bernardi: That too, yes. I don't deny that I was a little bit impatient.

Eric Friesen: But it has to be said, and if you know Mario you know that this is true, that he was no less hard on himself than on his players. Remember he had come from the opera world and wanted to learn orchestral repertoire. All around him the city and country were excited about the opening of the NAC and the debut of this orchestra. He on the other hand, barely noticed the hoopla.

Mario Bernardi: What was foremost in my mind was the next concert because I had no repertoire. I mean the first year, literally, I spent every day of every week, even on Christmas day I was working. I couldn't afford to quit because in five days or four days whenever it was, I had another program to do and I had to know it. I can't cheat. You can't cheat.

Eric Friesen: No, you can't cheat with professional players.

Mario Bernardi: No, and that first year was really probably the hardest year in my life, but also the most exciting. A wonderful, wonderful experience.

Eric Friesen: So, finally, after three weeks of intensive rehearsals, the orchestra was ready, and it made its debut on Tuesday night, October 7th, 1969. It was a huge concert: Mario remembers exactly what he had in mind.

Mario Bernardi: It was a concert where I tried to show the possibilities of a small orchestra. You know don't think of it as just that. I mean I had some Wagner, Siefried Idyll, I had some Haydn…

Eric Friesen: Miracle symphony I think it was?

Mario Bernardi: Yeah. That was sort of in my mind, you know just this is going to be a miracle (laughs). And we did the Schumann piano concerto.

Eric Friesen: With Ronald Turini.

Mario Bernardi: With Ronald Turini, yeah. Well he was a favorite of mine and he played very well indeed.

Eric Friesen: Well he had to have been because you're a pianist right? You're fussy about the pianist?

Mario Bernardi: Yes I was, yeah.

Music Clip

Eric Friesen: From the National Arts Center Orchestra's opening night - pianist Ronald Turini, with Mario Bernardi conducting... the finale to Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto, Oct 7th, 1969, to an ecstatic full house.

And that wasn't all. In addition to the Schumann Concerto and the Miracle Symphony for a miracle birth of an orchestra, and Wagner's Siefried Idyll, there was the Prokofiev Classical Symphony (which would become a party piece of this orchestra) and a brand new work commissioned for the occasion from Canadian composer Murray Adaskin. He called it Diversion for Orchestra - An Entertainment. I'll have more to say about the orchestra's and Mario's commitment to Canadian composer in a later chapter of this series.

The critics who were there that night raved about this opening concert. Ken Winters in the Toronto Telegram: “NACO gave a mercurial, buoyant and eminently neat account of a program.” Bill Littler in the Toronto Star: “Everything with Bernardi is balance and proportion and the singing line. To put the case in a nutshell: he has taste and so does the orchestra.” Jacob Siskind in the Montreal Gazette: “NACO is not merely one of the best in Canada, but easily one of the best of its kind in the world.”

And so from that miracle birth, the orchestra launched its first season, and its first decade. And what a launch it was. I've been reading through the season brochures for that first year and really the brochures of the whole Bernardi era. It was an incredible lineup of talent. Listen to the excitement rise in Jean-Jacques Van Vlasselaer's voice as he remembers those years.

Jean-Jacques Van Vlasselaer: Recently there has been an article about the National Arts Center about the star system. While the star system existed at that time too, and you know we have people like Géza Anda, Alfred Brendel in those first years. Alfred Brendel coming in… quite good conductors coming in also, but I'll come back to conductors afterwards. The Julliard Quartet. Lynn Harrell – young Lynn Harold…

Eric Friesen: Yes very young.

Jean-Jacques Van Vlasselaer: The great Robert Casadesus , Janet Baker in Les Nuits d'été by Berlioz, there you go! You know very difficult to do better than Janet Baker. Emile Gilels, one of the great pianists of the 20th century. Gilels came back several times, he did at least two Beethoven concerts and he did Tchaikovsky‘s second piano concerto.

Eric Friesen: Which we almost never hear.

Jean-Jacques Van Vlasselaer: Well the National Arts Center did the second piano concerto twice in that period. The other time was with Shura Cherkassky.

Eric Friesen: Wonderful.

Jean-Jacques Van Vlasselaer: Wonderful! John Ogden was there that time. But then, as conductors you had Karl Munchinger, who loved the orchestra. Munchinger was the great star at that time in Europe.

Eric Friesen: Certainly of chamber orchestras.

Jean-Jacques Van Vlasselaer: Of chamber orchestra repertoire. German conductor Hans Schimdt-Isserstedt who would come and conduct the orchestra and Argerich was around! Martha Argerich.

Eric Friesen: Impossible to get her now, but then you could.

Jean-Jacques Van Vlasselaer: David Oistrakh came to conduct a Mozart concert. People like Szymon Goldberg also came.

Eric Friesen: A wonderful violinist, especially in Mozart.

Jean-Jacques Van Vlasselaer: Absolutely. So I had… you know… Barry Tuckwell…

Eric Friesen: Horn player.

Jean-Jacques Van Vlasselaer: Vladimir Ashkenazy coming to conduct, and Klaus Tennstedt around. Alexander Gibson, Andrew Davis came to conduct also. These were very interesting days. We do have interesting conductors today too, I'm not making any differences there, but what I am trying to say is that, from the very beginning, Bernardi opened up and tried to have as large as possible a repertoire and invited first-rate people.

Eric Friesen: Well we're two or three gather together to talk about the early days of the National Arts Center Orchestra, it doesn't take long for the excitement level to rise.

Long before pianist Angela Hewitt became an international star, she was a child pianist and a dancer growing up here in Ottawa. She remembers those opening years of the NAC like they were yesterday.

Angela Hewitt: I have a very vivid impression, visual memory of Alfred Brendal sitting there and I found yesterday when it was, it was March 19th 1972 playing the Emperor concerto. I can still see him with his big glasses, and I was sitting very close with a girlfriend I remember, and I had never really seen a pianist play a Beethoven concerto like that. It made a huge impression. I really came to everything so it was a huge part of my musical education.

Eric Friesen: Angela Hewitt. But there's one more dimension to the Bernardi years about which I haven't yet talked about, and that's Opera. You will remember that Mario Bernardi came to the NAC an opera conductor who wanted to learn the orchestral repertoire. But he also came to conduct opera. That's what he knew, that was his passion. He wanted to do fully staged operas. He had this great opera house. And there he had a willing partner in Hamilton Southam. Hamilton Southam remembered Vincent Massey's idea of a festival in Ottawa on the scale of the Edinburgh Festival, and Southam pushed hard to get the big bucks out of the Federal Government to put it on. He already had a nimble versatile orchestra and an opera conductor. Sarah Jennings...

Sarah Jennings: With Mario as conductor, Mr. Southam concluded that absolutely they had to have opera here at the Arts Center. They created the idea of an opera festival. This was Mario's forte. So when you ask me what do I think of when I think of Mario Bernardi here at the Arts Center, of course it's the magnificent opera festival which over the years was developed, starting in 1971 and tragically truncated and cut with the last opera that was produced here in 1983. But in the intervening years up to the time when Mr. Southam departed in 1977, shortly afterwards, this was one of the great centers for opera in the world. Not only in Canada. It was a very exciting development and Mario Bernardi was the artistic director and the key figure in bringing that about.

Eric Friesen: I remember moving to Ottawa in 1972, which was the year after the opera festival started, and what magical summers those were. All the Mozart operas - Don Giovanni, Cosi Fan Tutte, Magic Flute, Marriage of Figaro, all with great singers, Canadian and international stars. Douglas Sturdevant - whom everyone here knows as Pace - Pace Sturdevant came to the orchestra in 1974 as a trumpet player. When I asked him for his recollections of the Bernardi years, one word came to mind.

Douglas Sturdevant: Opera. Opera, Opera, Opera. The summer opera festivals were a dream. Some of the things I remember specifically are the quality of the productions, the incredible voices because Mario knew voices so well, and they all liked to sing and work with him. They were perhaps intimidated by Mario, but the quality was unbelievable. And also, when we would do Mozart and Mario conducted it from the harpsichord it was wonderful to listen to.

Eric Friesen: He was a terrific pianist.

Douglas Sturdevant: Really. But the inventiveness. Mario, always with the baton and everything aside on the podium, to then see somebody like that as a musician away from the podium was fascinating. It was a real glimpse into him and the depth of his musicality. It was an intense period of time because he loved opera so much and that was his background, but it was rewarding. And we sure needed vacation afterwards (laughs).

Eric Friesen: I'll bet.

Douglas Sturdevant: It was exhausting but when I think of the productions that we did, the Cendrion with Frederica Von Stade , and of course, Vickers the incredible production of Queen of Spades.

Eric Friesen: All the Mozart operas.

Douglas Sturdevant: Yeah. Rinaldo was fantastic.

Eric Friesen: Was that the one that went to New York?

Douglas Sturdevant: Yeah it went to New York with Marilyn Horne and Sam Ramey and Benita Valente.

Eric Friesen: Pace Sturdevant. Rinaldo was recorded by CBC and is now available on a commercial recording. Listen to this thrilling aria from that production, with soprano Marilyn Horne and trumpeter Pace Sturdevant as soloist.

Audio Clip

Eric Friesen: Just a dazzling moment of opera in Ottawa, July 9th, 1982... Mario Bernardi at the harpsichord conducting the National Arts Center Orchestra with soprano Marilyn Horne and principal trumpet Pace Sturdevant in a kind of a duet. What a brass section there led by Pace. That's now available on a commercial recording on the Ponto label.

I asked Mario Bernardi to recall some of his highlights from those summer times and some of the great singers that came to the city. Jon Vickers in Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades came immediately to Mario's mind...

Mario Bernardi: Vickers of course. That was fraught with disaster. First of all he wouldn't come when he was supposed to, which meant we had to have a stand in to be there in case something happened. Also, we were doing a thing for which he was famous for but he hadn't done it for years. It was a Russian opera you know. So he didn't come, he didn't come, he didn't come, this other guy was really just a stand in, just a…

Eric Friesen: A marker.

Mario Bernardi: Yeah. So then he came finally and he wasn't in very good voice. And so he said, you better put in the stand in. So I said, look Jon, if you don't sing this, there's only one thing to do and that is I'm going to cancel the production. And that sort of woke him up, so alright, alright, you know. So we worked like mad, because you know, he could hold the role, he did not know it in English. And also he was in bad voice. So everything was rushed, all the time I was saying please Jon, they can't play it that fast, it's not supposed to go that fast. But then he sort of regained his voice so everything slowed down. In the end I was saying, please Jon, they can't play that slow (laughs). I mean we must have added twenty minutes to the performance or something. But it was exciting and the production was particularly exciting. The set was wonderful. So he was enjoying the success. So why not take more time and really show off your voice.

Eric Friesen: Any other singers that you remember?

Mario Bernardi: Von Stade was wonderful. Yeah, we did a couple of things with her. But the one production was the Cendrion by Massenet. It was then almost unknown, it had gone somehow, for some reason, off the repertoire and nobody was doing it. It was her suggestion to do it. I asked her, what would you like to do? She mentioned that and it turned out to be a fantastic success, a production which I conducted in San Francisco and in New York several times. It also went to Paris, without me, without a conductor. It was a completely, completely fantastic opera.

Eric Friesen: I remember you doing a Midsummer Night's Dream.

Mario Bernardi: Oh yeah, that was a high point in my career too. That was a beautiful production also.

Eric Friesen: I remember that production of Midsummer Night's Dream - Benjamin Britten's masterpiece. I was there on a magical summer night in Ottawa in the great new opera house on the Rideau Canal. We just all thought we'd died and gone to heaven!

Well, it wouldn't last the opera festival. Just too expensive, and when Hamilton Southam left in 1977, and then Mario Bernardi in 1982, the great champions weren't there to keep the government's feet to the fire and economic circumstances simply forced an end to the opera festival. But for 12 years, it was one of the musical high points of Canada.

What a legacy - those Bernardi years, with his partner Hamilton Southam, and the board and all those terrific young staff people who supported them. A new arts centre in the heart of our nation's capital. A resident orchestra that could dazzle listeners in Ottawa but also on tour across Canada and at legendary halls like Carnegie Hall in New York City. And an opera festival, the likes of which the country had never seen. A miracle, a 747 that took off and created a standard and expectation that was simply astonishing.

When I come to the last two programs in this series - featuring the international and Canadian stars that have been regulars with this orchestra over the years, there will be more tributes to Mario Bernardi. For now, I'm going to give Mario the last word.

Mario Bernardi: Well it certainly was the most important time in my life musically because it's when I learnt really how to conduct… Let's face it, I mean I had no experience as an orchestral conductor to speak of when I got there. And when I left, I think I knew one or two little bits of how to train an orchestra and so on. It's always also a matter of the heart. You feel attached to a group of people. I feel they're all friends of mine. Ottawa was very important in my formation as a conductor. I'm glad I came back to Canada.

Eric Friesen: You are, no regrets?

Mario Bernardi: No regrets at all.

Music clip

Eric Friesen: And remember that the music you're listening to on these programs is available to listen to, completely – all the works in their entirety, some 150 live recorded performances over the history of the National Arts Center Orchestra's forty years – and you can hear them by going to the Arts Alive.ca website. That's artsalive.ca and you can register to the NACmusicbox. That's where you'll find the music, listen for it, that's artsalive.ca at the NACmusicbox.