Orchestrating a symphony: Bernhard Güller from Halifax, Nova Scotia

Text: Bernadette Calonego
Photos: courtesy of Bernhard Güller

Bernhard Güller rehearsing in Milano, Italy. Can you see the conductor? He kind of melts into his orchestra. But I will give you a close up below, just bear with me. Enlarge image Bernhard Güller rehearsing in Milano, Italy. Can you see the conductor? He kind of melts into his orchestra. But I will give you a close up below, just bear with me. (© Bernhard Güller)

Be careful what you wish for. Because you might just end up as a German conductor of a symphony orchestra in Canada.

It had always been Bernhard Güller`s goal to be a conductor. He already dreamt of it when he was a boy in the small German town of Geislingen an der Steige, 60 kilometres from Stuttgart. And look what happened to him: He became one! For 20 years he had been a cellist in the radio orchestra in Stuttgart. And eventually, in 1997, he changed his profession to conductor. And said good-bye to Stuttgart.

Here he is: Bernhard Güller. Doesn`t he even look better than the late Austrian star conductor Herbert von Karajan? Just saying. Enlarge image Here he is: Bernhard Güller. Doesn`t he even look better than the late Austrian star conductor Herbert von Karajan? Just saying. (© Bernhard Güller)

But he took a detour before he came to Canada. Bernhard was 48 years old when he was offered a job as a principal conductor for the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra. He loved the South African city. He still has a residence in Cape Town and spends the summers there with his wife Shirley, who is a marketing consultant to the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra (working from Canada) which he still conducts annually.

As a guest conductor on all five continents, he happened to be in Finland when he got a call from his agent: Canada wanted him.

“In 2002, I got an invitation to conduct a concert with Symphony Nova Scotia in Halifax and so it happened that they offered me the job as music director within a couple of months”, he recalls. He accepted the offer.

Soon after, he was also appointed music director of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra, a position he held from 2006 to 2010 simultaneously.

Bernhard Güller with the KwaZulu Natal Philharmonic in Durban, South Africa.  Don`t ask me how to pronounce KwaZulu. Or what it means, please. Enlarge image Bernhard Güller with the KwaZulu Natal Philharmonic in Durban, South Africa. Don`t ask me how to pronounce KwaZulu. Or what it means, please. (© Bernhard Güller)

I would say, Halifax was a good move, literally and metaphorically. According to Bernhard, “it’s a very relaxed life, very civilized and artistically quite lively.”

What does it matter that the unions are a bit more strict in Canada than in Germany, and that the whole orchestra business is a bit more regulated! Bernhard takes it in stride. “From a music point of view”, he says, “orchestras are very international and music is always paramount.”

He should know. Bernhard is also the principal guest conductor in Victoria, the capital of British Columbia. And he was the principal guest conductor with the Johannesburg Philharmonic.

A concert with Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Bernhard Güller. Kind of difficult to take a picture from the audience, but that is what hard-core fans do all the time. Enlarge image A concert with Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Bernhard Güller. Kind of difficult to take a picture from the audience, but that is what hard-core fans do all the time. (© Bernhard Güller)

In his symphony orchestra, there are Japanese and Chinese and Americans – but he is the only German. Bernhard sticks out, in a positive way: He has learned that some people in Halifax find his German accent quite charming. And very probably the conductor himself, too. Bernhard is a widely recognised and admired person in Halifax. Dalhousie University in Halifax awarded Bernhard with a doctorate for his “personal service to music”.

It surely helps that his homeland Germany has such an old tradition in orchestra music.

But I warn you: If you are tempted to look condescendingly at music culture in North America, think twice. Because Bernhard might just throw this at you: “Canada has an amazing array of outstanding soloists and composers, and it has been my privilege to invite many of them and to many Canadian premieres. Some European chauvinists believe that Canada is a cultural desert, but that is absolutely not true!”

Uh uh. A critical look. What has happened? I think the oboe player did not get the sound right.  Come on, let`s do it all over again. Enlarge image Uh uh. A critical look. What has happened? I think the oboe player did not get the sound right. Come on, let`s do it all over again. (© Andrew Brown)

And he proceeds to giving evidence to undergird his statement. “In Halifax, they have quite a bustling cultural life, there is first of all our orchestra, then a playhouse, several amateur orchestras and a lively chamber music scene. I am happy here.”

There is one crucial difference to Germany though. In Canada, and certainly in Halifax, symphony orchestras are financed by private sponsors, not by the state.

Is this a curse or a blessing?

Rite of Spring at the Scotia Festival 2012. Normally, Bernhard Güller`s orchestra has 38 members, but he cannot help himself adding more and more and more. I cannot blame him. Music is addictive. Enlarge image Rite of Spring at the Scotia Festival 2012. Normally, Bernhard Güller`s orchestra has 38 members, but he cannot help himself adding more and more and more. I cannot blame him. Music is addictive. (© Kathy MacCulloch)


We have to find out and ask Bernhard some Crucial and Curious Questions (CCQ)!

Bernhard Güller, why do you get nasty emails sometimes?

Usually the emails are enthusiastic but once in a while there are nasty ones: Recently I performed a piece of contemporary music and somebody wrote to me: “This piece was the most horrible thing I have ever heard and I had to sit through it”, and so on.

Oh my! What do you do?

I send a friendly reply, saying that we cannot always play the same pieces and that it is not possible to please everybody all the time and we need to take care of contemporary music as well. But in general it helps a lot if I explain the piece of contemporary music to the audience, a short guideline, if you will, that makes a huge difference. Even when people don`t like one particular piece, they nevertheless come back to the next concert. It’s a very loyal audience.

A moment of triumph! Bernhard Güller with the Finnish group Rajaton (an Abba concert). But stop – is there something wrong with the conductor`s dress code? Everybody in white, but Bernhard wears black. I hope he will not get a nasty email for this. Enlarge image A moment of triumph! Bernhard Güller with the Finnish group Rajaton (an Abba concert). But stop – is there something wrong with the conductor`s dress code? Everybody in white, but Bernhard wears black. I hope he will not get a nasty email for this. (© Bernhard Güller)

Talking of differences, would a German audience react differently?

All I can say is that in Germany, you can do very radical things, you can be more adventurous with contemporary music. Because the orchestra is paid by the state, there is a certain kind of security in Germany. In Canada, you have to think about the audience more. I am glad that people express their opinion to us. Sometimes I get funny reactions in Germany, too.

For instance?

In Nuremberg, someone complained about the fact that I wore what was seen as an Africa-inspired concert dress, a looser fit that nowadays many soloists and conductors also wear.

So who gives you the money for your orchestra in Halifax?

We depend on private sponsors. That means you have to be looking constantly for support. You have to go to parties and functions to meet people who could sponsor the orchestra. In Halifax, there is a good environment for this.

How?

We have a lot of volunteers and a large base of people who support us. When you depend on private sponsors, this can be an advantage. It connects you much more with the audience. And we have made some really good personal friends amongst them.

When Bernhard Güller does this, he is not playing Mikado, a pick-up stick game originating in Europe - he is conducting Mozart. Enlarge image When Bernhard Güller does this, he is not playing Mikado, a pick-up stick game originating in Europe - he is conducting Mozart. (© Bernhard Güller)

What are the most popular pieces for the people in Halifax?

Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff - like anywhere else in the world.

How many people are in your orchestra?

38 musicians. But sometimes we enlarge it to 65 people.

Combined Symphony Orchestra of Nova Scotia and Nova Scotia Youth Orchestra at their annual concert.  The conductor is the only person standing on his feet. He is trained to do this for hours, believe me. Enlarge image Combined Symphony Orchestra of Nova Scotia and Nova Scotia Youth Orchestra at their annual concert. The conductor is the only person standing on his feet. He is trained to do this for hours, believe me. (© Kathy MacCulloch)

One last question: Can you remember what you did on the day when the Berlin Wall was demolished (November 9, 1989)?

Yes. I was working in the office of my home in Stuttgart. I had a small TV in front of my desk. I could not believe what I saw. I thought I was on another planet!

I grew up believing that the Berlin wall will be there for the next 200 years. I am sure a lot of politicians were surprised as well, unprepared as they were.

We are lucky that we were a witness of one of the spectacular moments in history.

Have a look at Bernhard`s website:
www.gueller.com

Bernhard Güller playing cello for the last time, at a chamber music concert in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia in February 2006. I knew he wanted to be able to sit down one more time! Enlarge image Bernhard Güller playing cello for the last time, at a chamber music concert in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia in February 2006. I knew he wanted to be able to sit down one more time! (© Kathy MacCulloch)

Bernhard Güller

Visa stamp by Immigration Canada

Bernadette Calonego, author of immigrant portraits

Bernadette Calonego

Most of our immigrant portraits are written by Bernadette Calonego, a freelance Canada correspondent for European German-language newspapers. Writing about German immigrants in Canada made me realise to what extent they helped to shape this country – and still do," she says.