Kontarsky studied at the Hochschule für Musik Köln. In 1964 he began his conducting career as Kapellmeister at the Staatstheater Stuttgart. From 1981 Kontarsky has been Professor of orchestral conducting at the Frankfurt University of Music and Performing Arts.
Kontarsky is well regarded as a specialist in new music. Amongst other things, he conducted the world premieres of El Rey de Harlem by Hans Werner Henze (1982), Die Erschöpfung der Welt by Mauricio Kagel (1980) (Herbort 1980), Don Quijote de la Mancha by Hans Zender (1993) (Anon. 1993), Sansibar by Eckehard Mayer (13 April 1994) (Horres, Kontarsky, Willaschek, and Mayer 1993), as well as the first German performance of the opera Die Wände by Adriana Hölszky, at the Frankfurt Opera, on 30 January 2000 (Anon. ; Anon. 2009; Ross 2000). In 1988 he directed a well-regarded production in Stuttgart of the opera Die Soldaten by Bernd Alois Zimmermann, a work he was previously involved with as co-repetiteur for the world premiere in 1965. This led to the second commercial recording of the work, released on CD in 1991 (Clements 1992). He also conducted the French premiere of Die Soldaten in April 1994 at the Opéra-Bastille (Jarry 1994). He is also the conductor on the first CD recording of Luigi Nono's opera Intolleranza 1960.
Kontarsky is the younger brother of the duo pianists Aloys and Alfons Kontarsky, with whom he has occasionally appeared in a triple-piano ensemble.
- Anon. 1993. "Rosen für Rosa und ein Garten für Monet". Manager Magazin, no. 10 (1 October): 328–29a (accessed 17 April 2009).
- Anon. . "Oper". Rosalie website (Accessed 17 April 2009).
- Anon. 2009. "Premieren der Oper Frankfurt ab September 1945 bis heute". Oper-Frankfurt website (accessed 17 April 2009).
- Clements, Andrew. 1992. "Soldaten, Die". The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, edited by Stanley Sadie. 4 vols. London: Macmillan Press; New York: Grove's Dictionaries of Music. ISBN 0-333-73432-7.
- Gronemeyer, Gisela. 1981. "Zu Hans Werner Henzes El rey de Harlem". Österreichische Musikzeitschrift 36, nos. 10–11 (October–November): 551–52.
- Herbort, Heinz Josef. 1980. "Lobpreis mit Schluckauf: Kagels Die Erschöpfung der Welt in Stuttgart". Die Zeit no. 8 (15 February).
- Horres, Kurt, Bernhard Kontarsky, Wolfgang Willaschek, and Eckehard Mayer. 1993. Sansibar [programme book]. Munich: Bayerische Staatsoper.
- Jarry, Hélène. 1994. "L’opéra de Zimmermann enfin montré à Paris". L’Humanité (26 January).
- Ross, Alexander. 2000. "Raumgreifend: Hölszkys Die Wände in Frankfurt". Crescendo 3, no. 1 (March–April): 15.