If Halifax had an all-star team of come-from-aways, internationally renowned German maestro Bernhard Gueller would be among its longest-playing and highest-scoring veterans but, alas, he’ll soon be just another gone-from-here.
The music director of Symphony Nova Scotia for 15 years, Gueller, more than anyone else, has inspired its blossoming as one of the most skilled, exciting, and versatile symphony orchestras in Canada. In the opinion of Christos Hatzis, a professor of music in Toronto and noted composer, “Symphony Nova Scotia is not just a regional orchestra, but a national leader.”
Howard Cable, who died at 96 in 2016, agreed. He had an amazing career as a TV and radio producer, composer, arranger, and leader of swing bands, and starred for 30 years as a guest conductor of pop concerts by Symphony Nova Scotia. “It’s the most versatile orchestra in Canada,” he says. “And unlike most orchestral players, they smile when they play, whether it’s Beethoven, baroque, Celtic, or jazz.”
No one knows that better than Gueller. As a guest conductor, he has repeatedly led orchestras to standing ovations on six continents but, about Symphony Nova Scotia, he says, “I don’t think I have ever come across musicians who more clearly show that they love what they’re doing.”
His style on the podium energetically nurtures this love. As a young cellist with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, he was sometimes led by great Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache. Gueller was also his protégé as a conductor and, from both experiences, learned the kind of conductor he did not want to be.
Celibidache was a giant of 20th-century conducting, but at times brutally insulting and dictatorial. “His way of dealing with people was so unpleasant no orchestra today would put up with it,” Gueller says, “and it did have an effect on the music.” In most respects, the music was wonderful, “But musicians must have some freedom in their playing.” Under Celibidache, they tended to play “like a car being driven with its brakes on.”
No one says that about Symphony Nova Scotia under Gueller. Here we have anywhere from 37 to 80 different musicians with two dozen or more different instruments, and they’re all playing together to make beautiful music. And out of their superbly precise timing, a kind of united obedience, somehow comes exactly that undertone of joyous freedom the man on the podium wants.
His parents were piano teachers, and as far back as he can remember, he knew he’d be a musician. His intense love of music, early career as a cellist, sheer talent as a conductor and unfailing courtesy all contribute to the rare rapport he enjoys with the symphony musicians.
“His attitude is remarkable,” principal clarinetist Dominic Desautels says. “Every morning, it’s, ‘Good morning, dear colleagues,’ in this very nice German accent. It makes you want to do your best.”
And Chris Wilcox, godfather of chamber music in Halifax, founder of the Scotia Festival of Music 38 years ago, and before that clarinetist with the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra, says, “I have never heard a single bad word about him.”
Before coming here, Gueller was conductor of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra and, by contrast with the rather formal relationship that’s typical between the conductor and the classical music community in a European city, the instant friendliness he found in Halifax—from symphony musicians, staff, board members and simply strangers who loved classical music—surprised and delighted him.
Conductors rarely stay in a city as long as 15 years but Gueller loves working with Halifax musicians and finds the city “quiet and civilized.” He settled here with his wife, Shirley de Cock Gueller in 2003. For more than 20 years she was a writer, editor, and public-relations consultant in Cape Town, South Africa.
Once the music director and principal conductor of the Cape Town Philharmonic, Gueller has returned to it over and over again as principal guest conductor. It’s to Cape Town that he and Shirley will move come summer. His farewell performance here, next May 12, will be as conductor of the 9th Symphony by his countryman, Ludwig Van Beethoven.
One of the greatest pieces of classical music ever written, its final movement features a choir singing “Ode to Joy.” From a leader who brought so much joy to lovers of classical music here, no farewell gift could be more appropriate. Fortunately, he’ll be back next November as the symphony’s first conductor laureate and, to bring us a bit more joy, will lead it in two concerts.