Charles Mackerras (1925?2010)
20th Jul 2010
Gig news staff
Charles Mackerras, the Australian conductor who championed Czech music for much of his life, has died at the age of 84. At the time of his death, he was conductor laureate of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, principal guest conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra, conductor emeritus of Welsh National Opera, and principal guest conductor emeritus at San Francisco Opera.
Mackerras was born in New York to Australian parents, who moved back to Sydney at an early age. There he developed what he called ‘a mania for music’, leaving school at 15 to join the Sydney Symphony (SS) as an oboist. He moved to London in 1947, where he won a scholarship to study conducting under Václav Talich in Prague.
His love of Czech music, particularly the works of Leoš Janáček, led to an acclaimed series of recordings of the composer’s operas with the Vienna Philharmonic. He conducted Kat’a Kabanova at Sadler’s Wells in 1951, the first time a Janáček opera had been performed in the UK. Mackerras also championed period performance as early as 1959, when he recorded Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks using the original wind band instrumentation.
In 1973 he returned to Sydney to conduct the SS’ opening concert at the new Sydney Opera House. He was the orchestra’s chief conductor from 1982 to 1985 – the first Australian to hold the position. In a statement, SS chief executive Rory Jeffes called Mackerras ‘a living treasure’ and ‘a man of great musical scholarship, talent and energy’.
Among Mackerras’ other appointments were: principal conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra (1954-56); music director at Sadler’s Wells - later English National Opera (1970-77) and seven years as principal guest conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (1997-2003). A noted expert on the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, he conducted the D'Oyly Carte’s productions of The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado in 1975, later joining its board of trustees. At the time of his death, he was also president of London’s Trinity College of Music, and honorary president of the Edinburgh International Festival Society