Friday, July 16, 2010


As widely reported by now, the exceptional Sir Charles Mackerras died yesterday in London aged 84.

Born in America where his father was working, to Australian parents, he was brought home (sic) to Sydney aged two, and here he grew up, a member of the prodigious Mackerras family, at least two brothers also virtually family names, Alastair (headmaster of Sydney Grammar) and Malcolm (political commentator). He is uncle to Alexander Briger who is now carrying the family baton.

His story is as vast as his command of music. The Guardian obituary is here, together with a very personal life in pictures, as well as a fine tribute from Tom Service. There was his Janacek, Dvorak, Mozart, Beethoven, Britten, Sullivan, wherever he went, including for those lucky enough (and that means Sydneysiders), Wagner.

For me, most of all Mackerras means the Sydney Opera House, the opening concert in 1973, when he launched the building that is the city onto the world stage. That beginning was as wonderful a moment in my musical experience as I can remember, its signficance increasing, not unsurprisingly, more and more with time. And especially now he is gone.

Here again are the 3 ABC classics 'youtubes' from the night. If you haven't seen them, look, look at Mackerras, with some fantastic camera work in black and white. Words don't cover it.

I last saw him in 2007 in Covent Garden in his element, conducting his beloved Janacek and giving us a sublime and heartbreaking Katya Kabanova, at curtain call already then looking quite frail and belying the magnitude of the performance he had just given.

It is his recording of Janacek's Glagolitic Mass, that wildly anarchic commentary on man, gods and institutions, that I wish I was playing right now. I'll seek it out this coming week.

He died as he lived, virtually on the podium, about to conduct this August in Edinburgh and be celebrated at this years Proms. It's very sad, and I do feel sad, but I especially feel tremendously thankful for having being alive at the same time as this musical giant, thankful for what he has given the world, this country, this city, and me.

Update on the 17th - Via Jessica Duchen's Standpoint, I've found these fond memories from David Nice.

There's more - Another interesting piece of information has popped up. In 1991, the bicentenary of Mozart's death, Sir Charles conducted the Don Giovanni that reopened the Estates Theatre in Prague (the Theatre where the Don had premiered). I immediately thought back to our visit, and can't resist reposting the photo (one of my favorites) I took from our box.

(none of the pics from the old camera, uploaded through the old pc, enlarge - don't ask me, I just fluke it)

More still - Antony Lias, in Opera Brittania, has relinked to a 2009 interview with Sir Charles. He speaks in quite some depth about the early years, and his thoughts on Janacek and Britten. Even Cheryl gets a mention. Some tit bits:

On first hearing Katya Kabanova (Prague 1947) -

“I was completely and utterly bowled over by it. I will always remember that incredible first chord, coming out of the pit of the National Theater (Prague), that B Flat minor chord, which starts inaudibly and then gets louder and louder, before finally moving on to that gorgeous phrase. I always remember the effect that it had on me, and will never forget it. It’s so different from any other style of music, you can’t say that it is really influenced by anyone else at all. Although he made use of a lot of the means of expression that was popular at the time, like the whole tone scale, Janacek used such effects in a completely different way, and so doesn’t sound anything like his contemporaries, Suk and Strauss.”

Working with Vaclav Talich -

"We then both got married and both went on to Prague, I to study conducting with Vaclav Talich, whilst my wife undertook postgraduate studies on the clarinet. Talich didn’t really have time to teach in a conventional manner, instead he told me to come to all his rehearsals, which I did. When the communists came, poor old Talich was thrown out of all his positions. He lived out the rest of his life in his country house just outside the capital. I took the opportunity of going out to see him to study there, after which I then returned to England."

On Britten -

I have to say straight away that I consider him to be the greatest musician I ever came in contact with. The man who could compose Peter Grimes, just pull it out of thin air, is incredibly original. He was certainly rather fickle at times, as he had a habit of taking somebody up and then discarding them. They called them “Britten’s corpses”! I think it was Lord Harewood who invented that particular term. And of course I too became a “corpse”.

On (the ghosts in) The Turn of the Screw -

Of course, that was the big decision that Britten and Myfanwy Piper had to take: is this actually happening, or is it only a figment of the governess’s imagination? So they made the decision that it is in fact happening, and so the two ghosts actually sing, whereas they don’t say anything in the novel. Most people are certain that James intended you to not be sure about this point. The Turn of the Screw is a wonderful opera, and arguably Britten’s greatest.”