Monday, November 15, 2010


A Conductor for All Seasons

Charles Mackerras was a conductor for all seasons, certainly for four centuries of music, his range was extraordinary, from Cavalli to Janacek and beyond: his Handel was alive, crackling and beguiling, his Mozart loving and spirited, his Beethoven sonorous and magisterial, his Brahms warm and grand whilst he excelled in many twentieth century composers from Elgar to Stravinsky, although perhaps his greatest achievement was to introduce Janacek, first to us in Britain and then to the world via opera houses and CDs. Almost from the start of his conducting in Sadler’s Wells he had proved himself a good conductor but as he went on, he became a great one, seemingly an expert in the works of any composer he performed.

Janet Baker spoke for us all when she eulogised Charles at his funeral: “performers develop a bond that grows out a common purpose, to serve the composer as best we can .... I have never known a musician who filled that duty more than Charles did; the burning intention that shaped and drove him had one purpose: to put his gifts at the composer’s service before anything else; he demanded the same dedication from his singers and players; he drove us very hard because he wanted us to match his vision, his search for perfection, and we responded to it.”

Mackerras had great knowledge about the composers whose works he conducted, great knowledge too about the craft of conducting, but with all that preliminary knowledge he also had the true conductor’s gift to communicate with his performers; he was able to energise them, to teach them, lead them, to get the best out of them, to inspire them. Beecham used to say that conducting was a mysterious craft: Charles was able to solve the mystery.

He reached the summit although he didn’t give the audience much to look at, he was a pale looking man, a nice toothy smile but he did not flash like Beecham, leap about like Bernstein, terrify like Koussevitsky or strike poses like Stokowsky. The sound was all, pure music-making, profound and satisfying. There was no middle man between the music and the listener.

Although Charles was born in the USA, he was Australian, reared in Sydney. He made his living first as an oboist. Overseas he made his conducting debut at the Wells conducting Die Fledermaus. Like all truly great conductors he was also a good director of light popular music. He rescued Sullivan’s Cello concerto from oblivion and arranged some of the Savoy opera music for the ballet; his Pineapple Poll was a great success. Starting with Katerina Ismailova in 1963, he often conducted at Covent Garden. He had 5 years at Hamburg Opera. A spell as guest conductor with the BBC Symphony was not a happy time but after that he guested in America and all over Europe.

He was one of the pioneers in decorating eighteenth century music, especially the use of appogiaturas (leaning notes).

He welcomed the opportunity of working annually with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. One of the band’s violinists, Catherine Mackintosh wrote: “How lucky we were to have him inspire us for so long.” It was a marvel that, though terminally ill this year, he was able to go on working. His performances in the summer at Glyndebourne continued until only a few weeks before he died – he had tremendous courage, guts and will power.

Sir Charles worked a great deal with the Philharmonia Orchestra as well as the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment so it was fitting that both those ensembles organised a concert in his memory on November 4 in the Royal Festival Hall. The period orchestra began fittingly with Handel’s Fireworks Music, which grand music Charles had recorded back in 1959 (the sessions took place at night, the only time that, for example, 26 oboes could be mustered). A young Czech conductor, Tomas Notopil, conducted a passionate Dvorak Symphony No. 7, Julian Rachlin and Laurence played well in a faultily balanced performance of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante. The marathon concert programme ended, naturally, with Janacek: the suite from The Cunning Little Vixen that Charles had devised and the final scene from the same opera with Sir Tom Allen singing the Gamekeeper’s song about the renewal of life. This was programmed at Charles’s wish and was directed well by his nephew Alexander Briger. Here one could not help noticing that he has not the gift, like Charles and the truly great performers, of seeming to have more time than lesser artists, more time for notes, nuances and phrasing.

It was good that Judy, Lady Mackerras, was in the audience. Charles would have been the first to acknowledge that Judy, a former clarinettist, had been a wonderful support all their long married life.

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