Interview with Bernhard Gueller

This spring, Symphony Nova Scotia says farewell to its Music Director of 16 years, Maestro Bernhard Gueller. With his passionate music-making, exemplary skill, and genuine kindness, Bernhard will forever be remembered as one of Symphony Nova Scotia’s most beloved and powerful influences.

We sat down with Bernhard to hear about his favourite memories, future plans, and advice for the orchestra’s next Music Director.


What made you decide that 2017/18 would be your final season with Symphony Nova Scotia?

Of course, it’s never just one reason for these things. One major reason is that 15 years is quite a long time, and I think that it will benefit the orchestra and the audience to experience new ideas and new interpretations. One famous German conductor, Wolfgang Sawallisch, said that one should never stay longer than seven years with an orchestra! Another reason is also age and health – one doesn’t get younger.


What are your plans going forward?

My wife Shirley and I will go to Cape Town, which for the last 15 years has been our second home after Halifax – now it will be our only home. I am Principal Guest Conductor of the Cape Town Philharmonic orchestra there, and will do my other things from there – conducting in other cities in South Africa and in other countries like Canada. I will come back to Canada in November to conduct Symphony Nova Scotia, in Victoria, and again next year in Edmonton and for the Scotia Festival.

Shirley is from Cape Town, and we have family there. Their winter is very nice, very much like the summer here. And though the summer can be very hot, at least it’s not humid, which is a real plus! How Cape Town is situated, with the mountain and the sea and the harbour, is very, very nice. We live on a high house up on Cape Town’s famous Table Mountain. (See picture above.) It’s a beautiful, sensational view. Although water is a problem!


What are some of your favourite memories from Symphony Nova Scotia?

There will always be Haydn 104 – which we will do when I return in November again. I also very much enjoyed performing Brahms 4 this past fall, and Tchaikovsky 5 last year. Another favourite memory is making our Dancing in the Light recording of Christos Hatzis pieces, and also performing the Neruda Songs by Peter Lieberson in 2013 – that was something very special.

For soloists, James Ehnes of course, Giora Schmidt, and Jane Archibald. Performing with Jackie Parker was also very special. And how can I not mention Marc-André Hamelin as we look forward to the Festival?


What will you miss about Symphony Nova Scotia?

It’s a very nice group of colleagues. There’s always a positive working atmosphere. And very good players. It’s a very good orchestra.

The management has also been very generous. Especially in giving me so many big concerts, and expensive concerts!

The orchestra and audience have also been very open to new repertoire, for contemporary repertoire, for commissioned pieces. That is very satisfying when I look back over these 15 years.


What will you miss about Halifax?

I have always appreciated the civilized life here. The safe life here. Especially when you come from South Africa, you appreciate this very much. You can go whenever you want, wherever you want. You can leave your car or flat open, and nothing happens.

Also, the people here are very warm and helpful and generous. For me, that is actually what makes one like a place. It’s not so much how the city looks, how the nature looks, or whatever – it’s how the people are. How good and how comfortable you feel with the people. And we felt very much at home here. Very welcomed.


What do you think Symphony Nova Scotia should look for in a new Music Director?

I think it’s important to bring in someone with strong ideas, and a vision of which way the orchestra should go. It’s also important to take care of contemporary music, and to be a good orchestral trainer. And of course, to create as many great artistic experiences as possible. In the end, this is what it’s all about.


On the other hand, what should we avoid in a new Music Director?

It’s not ideal to be too one-sided on repertoire. One should be open to many things. One must also not have any technical difficulties, and must not be too polarizing a personality. For many years in Germany I worked with the great Sergiu Celibidache, and he was a very polarizing personality – but he was also such a genius that no one cared whether he was nice or not. But I think his results would have been even greater if he’d been a little more human.


How involved have you been in Symphony Nova Scotia’s search for a new Music Director?

Not at all. It is my wish to leave the decision absolutely with the symphony in this. The only thing I told the Search Committee, a long time ago, is that they have to listen to the musicians in the decision they make.


How will you stay in touch with Symphony Nova Scotia going forward?

I’m back in November for a concert, and I’m sure that I will ask very often in the future what’s going on, how we are doing. I hope to come back and visit, and take holidays here. There will never be a cut off. It will always be a matter of interest for me what’s happening here.

We have felt very much at home here. We made great friends here. I am especially grateful to our donors, and have very fond memories of our annual Festivals, which for the past 13 years or so have been made possible by donors who gave money to support them. Many others donated to the endowment. And of course, we have had so many loyal audience members over these past 15 years. I am very, very grateful.