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Sir Charles Mackerras
conductor
1925 - 14th July 2010

This article was written on the death of Sir Charles Mackerras in July 2010 and first published in The White Hat Melbourne Newsletter

Over half a century ago at a festival for avant garde music the audience was particularly struck by a youthful piece that was pushing the boundaries and waited for the composer to come on stage to receive his acknowledgement.

Last year, White Hat was listening to the radio and heard a particularly youthful and aggressive performance of a Mozart symphony. We waited for the back-announcement as to who this particularly brave young conductor was.

The conductor was the Australian Sir Charles Mackerras who had recorded this performance full of youthful verve and drive at the age of 83. More than half a century earlier, the audience at the ISCM Festival waiting for the revolutionary wunderkind composer to appear on stage was greeted with the sight of the white haired and elderly Leoš Janáček.

The Australian Charles Mackerras was to become one of the revered conductors of the works of Janáček, Mozart, Handel and many other composers.

Sir Charles died yesterday at the age of 85 virtually with his boots on – or at least with baton in hand.

His life could probably be summarised by a few simple principles. Know your craft and keep working on it, take your opportunities and run with them, start young and keep going right to the end.

As a student in Sydney he played the piano and the flute. He learned that there were scholarships at the Conservatorium for oboists, so he swapped the flute for the oboe. By the age of 16 he was playing in pick-up theatre orchestras and on the radio with the Colgate-Palmolive band which backed Jack Davey. He played in a jazz band that rose out of the floor at the State Theatre. You took your opportunities and did not treat any of them lightly. Bands such as these rarely had the complement of instruments originally called for, so he became an orchestrator. By the time he was 18 he had written a full ballet and summoned up the courage to approach the visiting conductor Eugene Ormandy to look over it. Ormandy was impressed and during rehearsal played the final movement – a masterly fugue based on Waltzing Matilda.

After a stint as principal oboe with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the young Charles headed off to London, started at the bottom again but was happy enough playing second oboe in Gilbert & Sullivan productions. One day, while sitting in a coffee shop and studying the score of a Dvořák symphony which he had just purchased, a stranger pointed out that there might be the chance of a conducting scholarship if he went and studied in Prague. Take your opportunities. Off he went and later became one of the most respected conductors of Czech music in the world and particularly that by Janáček mentioned earlier. Ask most people from the Czech region today about an Australian musician and they are likely to mention Charles Mackerras with reverence but know little about Australian pop bands – and that will be replicated in many places throughout the world, except perhaps for Australian secondary schools. When the National Trust surveyed Australians to compile its list of 100 living treasures, numbers of minor passing players from popular culture made the list but Sir Charles didn't.

Returning to England, Charles became an assistant conductor. Various aging conductors in poor health had to pull out of recording sessions due to illness. The young Charles was not the name you could put on a record label for a major work, but not to worry. There was plenty of light music that could be recorded seeing that the studio had already been booked and if treated with the same respect as the ‘great’ music its details could be appreciated anew. Charles became THE conductor of Gilbert and Sullivan. He was also exploring the world of period instruments and helping to blow the dust off the scores from the Baroque period. His reputation grew and he became the first non-Briton to conduct a last night of the Proms.

But with all of this he was not a flamboyant conductor. From his work with pickup orchestras he knew that meticulously marking up the parts before the first rehearsal meant that you could produce optimum results from limited rehearsal time.

It was appropriate that Charles was the conductor chosen for the opening season at the Sydney Opera House.

Vale Sir Charles – You helped give Australia a good name.

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