The Birth of the Bernardi Sound
A Year to Remember
1969 was an exciting time in Canada. Two years before, Expo 67 in Montreal had brought the world to Canada’s doorstep to marvel at its creativity, ingenuity and achievement. To further celebrate and commemorate Canada’s centennial year, the federal government undertook a vast project to build new performing arts facilities across Canada, and to radically revitalize existing ones. In Ottawa this project took the shape of the National Arts Centre.
This National Arts Centre would provide performance space for theatre, opera, ballet and experimental works, and was to be the home of one resident company, a symphony orchestra. At 44 members (later increased to 46) the National Arts Centre Orchestra’s size was that of a “classical” orchestra, between that of a small chamber orchestra and that of a full symphony orchestra of 100-odd players. The orchestra was conceived as particularly suitable for performing works from the baroque and classical era – for example, Bach, Beethoven and Schubert – along with some works from the 19th century romantic composers like Schumann, Mendelssohn and Brahms – and many works from the 20th century by composers like Stravinsky, Bartok and Walton. Vitally important was also the mandate to nurture and perform works by our own Canadian composers. The orchestra’s compact size would allow it to tour and travel across the country with great economy.
Mario Bernardi was chosen to be the first conductor of the orchestra. When his name was announced, a Member of Parliament, assuming the name implied a European background, inquired in question period as to why the NAC could not find a Canadian conductor to lead its new orchestra, and the reply was that, happily, indeed it had. Mario Bernardi was born in Kirkland Lake in Northern Ontario and had worked professionally as a conductor, pianist and vocal coach for some years in Toronto before joining the Sadlers Wells Opera Company in London, England as conductor.
The orchestra performed its first concert on October 7th, 1969 and enjoyed immediate success with both critical acclaim and enthusiastic audience response. Music lovers from coast to coast heard it regularly thanks to the many concerts transmitted by the CBC and Radio Canada across the country. The orchestra soon developed a unique sound which made it immediately identifiable to listeners.
Two factors worked together to produce this sound. One was the excellence of the individual players, all of whom had been chosen after extensive and painstaking search and auditions over the previous two years. The other was the discipline instilled in the new ensemble by Mario Bernardi, the uncompromising attention to and insistence on perfection in intonation, ensemble and balance. This combined with the clarity, precision and reliability of the leadership from the conductor’s podium produced the basic, unique sound quality of the orchestra. The orchestra quickly became known for its excellence both here and abroad. An invitation to tour the Soviet Union in 1973, followed by an invitation to the Bath Festival in England, were early acknowledgements of this excellence.
The acoustic qualities of Southam Hall (then called the Opera) also played a significant role in the development of the orchestra’s sound. The Opera was conceived as a performance space for both opera and symphonic music. Opera requires a drier, less reverberant acoustic than symphonic music, and by accident, the acoustic consultant for the hall was given a reverberation time to work with that was even shorter than what expert advice recommended.
The result was a hall which became known for its dryness, or comparative lack of reverberation, but also for its transparency and its clarity. It was utterly honest in its revelation of every detail, both intentional and accidental, of performances. Unlike many dry halls which tend to give a muffled character to sounds produced there, it preserved exemplary brightness and crispness which played perfectly into the ideals of clarity, precision and balance that Bernardi and the orchestra’s musicians worked to achieve.
This pellucid, crystalline brilliance served for many years as the foundation of the orchestra’s sound, though each new Music Director added a style and character to the sound which expressed his own musical vision.