06/03/2013 01:01 EDT | Updated 08/03/2013 05:12 EDT

NAC Orchestra founding conductor Mario Bernardi dies

Mario Bernardi, the venerable Canadian conductor who helped found the National Arts Centre Orchestra and led classical music troupes across Canada, has died in Toronto. He was 82.

Bernardi died peacefully Sunday morning, according to a statement from the National Arts Centre, which lowered its flag to half-mast in Ottawa on Monday.

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

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"Mario was a visionary who led the orchestra on tours of European capitals, to Carnegie Hall, and to cities across Canada," added NACO managing director Christopher Deacon.

"He brought a unique combination of imagination and discipline that enabled him to not only build an orchestra, but also a renowned international summer opera festival."

European and Canadian experience

Born in Kirkland Lake, Ont. in 1930, Bernardi was raised in Europe. With his mother he moved to Treviso, Italy, from the age of six. After the Second World War he studied music at the Venice Conservatory.

He also studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music and launched his professional music career in Toronto, including working as a pianist/soloist, a coach and a conductor. His employers included the Canadian Opera Company (COC) in its early days.

In 1963 he crossed the Atlantic once again to become a coach and assistant conductor with London's Sadler's Wells Opera Company — now the English National Opera. He eventually became a musical director with the British company.

Five years later in 1968, Bernardi was lured back to Canada to help found the National Arts Centre Orchestra, which he developed from the ground up — including personally conducting auditions for all the original musicians.

He led the orchestra until 1982, founded its Festival Canada summer opera celebrations and continued to be a guest conductor elsewhere, including the COC, throughout that time. Later posts included heading the Calgary Philharmonic and serving as principal conductor of the CBC Radio Orchestra in Vancouver.

A companion of the Order of Canada, Bernardi was also presented with the Governor General's Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2001 and received honourary degrees from universities across Canada.

Bernardi spent his final years at a retirement residence in Toronto. He is survived by his wife, mezzo-soprano Mona Kelly.

The NACO will unveil its recently commissioned bust of Bernardi — created by noted Canadian sculptor Ruth Abernethy — at the NAC's Southam Hall entrance at noon on Canada Day.

The arts organization said it will also create a fund in his name to champion the commission of new Canadian compositions for the orchestra.