CPO music director Rune Bergmann to leave organization after 2024/2025 season

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When Rune Bergmann took the reins as music director of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra in 2016, there was more than a little anxiety in the city about crashing oil prices and the impact that may have on artistic groups.

Within a few years, the CPO – like all arts groups around the world – faced an even more pronounced and unprecedented crisis when COVID-19 lockdowns shut down all arts activities for several seasons. For the CPO, the impact was immediate: It cancelled its sold-out March 12 show and layoff notices to 83 musicians took effect on March 28. But the organization persevered.

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“It wasn’t the easiest years for me to be in Calgary, but there is always a meaning to things and I think that the connections we made with the audience and also through the livestreams made us successful during difficult times,” says Bergmann, in an interview with Postmedia. “So it’s been a pleasure and a challenge at the same time.”

On Wednesday, the CPO announced its 2024/2025 season, an all-star lineup that will feature everything from collaborations with renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Calgary-born pop singer Kiesza and violinist James Ehnes to tributes to Pink Floyd, “pop bangers” such as Harry Styles and Billie Eilish, Bob Marley and Tina Turner. It was also announced that it will be Bergmann’s final season as music director after nine years, with the renowned conductor joining the CPO for the last time as music director on May 30 and 31, 2025, for performances of Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony with soprano Iwona Sobotka and mezzo-soprano Marianne Beate Kielland.

Superstar cellist Yo-Yo M, seen performing a free concert at the Place des Arts metro station in Montreal will be back to play with the CPO in the upcoming season. Postmedia files Photo by Montreal Gazette /Montreal Gazette

The decision to leave was Bergmann’s, who says it seems like a natural time and something he has been planning for a few years. He says nine years is a good run, adding that the CPO has spent the past few seasons rebuilding its live audience after COVID-19.

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“Now, I would say, going into this next season will probably be the first one that feels a little bit normal,” he says. “So I think it’s a good time.”

The pandemic showed the musicians and organization that arts groups must be flexible and “react very quickly.” When the lockdowns began in March 2020, the CPO temporarily laid off its staff and support workers but within two weeks brought them back at reduced hours to work from home.

Even before the pandemic, Bergmann had insisted the CPO embrace technology when looking to the future. In fact, a performance by Yo-Yo Ma and the CPO during Bergmann’s first season was live-streamed in 2017.

“It was way ahead of (its) time and that kind of saved us in the pandemic,” he says. “From all the orchestras I’ve worked with around the world, I think the Calgary Philharmonic was hit the hardest because we (couldn’t) access the hall and couldn’t play together. We already had our live-stream up and running so (we were) able to react very quickly. So we came out of that in a great way with the musicians, but of course, the challenge was that we didn’t play together for two seasons. When we came out of that, our goal was to get back on stage and get our audience back.”

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Bergmann did not say what exactly he plans to do after conducting his last show here, but says he wants to return to a somewhat normal life after being at the helm of not only the CPO but also being artistic director and chief conductor of the Szczecin Philharmonic in Poland, music director of Switzerland’s Argovia Philharmonic and overseeing both the Penisula Music Festival in Wisconsin and Norway’s Fjord Cadenza Festival.

He says he will also be leaving his post at the Szczecin Philharmonic this year.

“When the pandemic hit, basically nobody wanted me to leave and I couldn’t leave them, either,” he says. “The pandemic time was the years where I conducted the least but worked the hardest to keep everybody sane and alive.”

Calgary Philharmonic president and CEO Marc Stevens credits Bergmann for bringing in high-profile artists and new commissions while helping spark a love in Calgary for the music of Anton Bruckner and Mahler.

“The goal has been to get our audience back in the hall,” says Bergmann. “Which has been going slowly but I would say very well. We even got some new ones after the pandemic, I think that (younger audience members) realized we have to live while we can. So it ended up that we also have quite a new audience with an appetite for music that has not been played too much in Calgary. Mahler was done before my time, but it wasn’t necessarily what brought a full house. Now we’ve had two sold-out performances of Mahler (Symphony No. 2) that we are going to repeat this (season), Mahler’s fifth has been very popular. We did a collaboration with Edmonton of Mahler’s three that blew the roof off. I would say that everything in life takes time and now there is a big appetite for Mahler. “

“I see that the audiences now are more open,” he adds. “They trust that what we play is going to be good. So the (idea) that you have to play Beethoven’s 5th is not as big as it was before to catch the audience.”

For a full list of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2024/2025 season visit calgaryphil.com.

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