15 July 2010
Charles Mackerras, 84, Esteemed Janáček Exponent and a Fixture on the British Music Scene, Has Died
© Erika Davidson
Schenectady, New York, November 17, 1925—London, July 14, 2010
Australian conductor Charles Mackerras, a mighty exponent of the works of Janáček and a fixture on the British music scene for more than sixty years, has died.
Mackerras died of cancer on Wednesday evening in a London hospital, his management agency, Askonas Holt, reported. He was 84.
Born while his Australian parents were on an extended visit to the U.S., Alan Charles Maclaurin Mackerras returned with them as an infant to Sydney, where he soon manifested musical talent, eventually acquiring facility on several instruments, notably the oboe. He began to play professionally while still studying at the Sydney Conservatorium. In 1947, he moved to the U.K. to expand his musical horizons. While working as an oboist — he met his future wife, clarinettist Judy Wilkins, in the pit of the Sadler's Wells Opera orchestra on tour — he set his sights on conducting and was awarded a scholarship to study under Václav Talich in Prague. His period in the Czech capital proved fruitful, as it was there that he gained an enthusiastic knowledge of the operas of Janáček, then little known outside their homeland.
On his return to England, he started to make a name as a well-prepared and versatile conductor, with a by-line in musical scholarship and arranging; his ballet score Pineapple Poll, based on music from the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, proved a permanent hit after its 1951 premiere. His first Sadler's Wells assignment, Die Fledermaus in 1948, led to regular performances as a staff conductor and later a frequent guest, with a notable success in the U.K. premiere of Káťa Kabanová in 1951. In 1970, he was asked by Stephen Arlen, then chief executive of Sadler's Wells, to take over the company's musical directorship, a task he carried out with distinction. During his tenure, his friend Lord Harewood became general manager, and the company changed its name to English National Opera in 1974, with Mackerras conducting Traviata on the night the ensemble was renamed. This period, which ended when Mackerras left in 1977, is often regarded as the most successful in the company's history.
At Sadler's Wells/ENO, Mackerras conducted several historic productions, notably a 1965 Le Nozze di Figaro that introduced copious period ornamentation into the score, much of it discovered by Mackerras himself in European libraries, as well as important stagings of The Makropulos Case, From the House of the Dead and The Excursions of Mr Brouček — all three works new to the London stage. His later series of recordings of Janáček operas with the Vienna Philharmonic for London Records received several awards and helped spread Janáček's music even further. Another specialty was Handel, with Mackerras's musicological research supplying the foundation for long-running ENO productions of Julius Caesar and Xerxes, though a negative review from fellow-Handelian authority Winton Dean in Opera magazine began a lengthy and vituperative correspondence between the two.
Meanwhile, Mackerras, who seemed to thrive on an enormous workload and a hectic travel schedule, built up long-lasting relationships with other opera houses, notably Hamburg (where he was chief conductor from 1966 to 1969), Vienna and San Francisco (as principal guest conductor), as well as with orchestras in the U.K. and elsewhere. He was music director of Welsh National Opera from 1987 to 1992 and of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra from 1982 to 1986. He appeared with the Royal Opera regularly from 1963 on, though at an eightieth-birthday celebration following a performance of Un Ballo in Maschera in 2005, he pointedly noted that he had always worked at Covent Garden as a guest; the fact that he was passed over as the company's music director clearly rankled. He was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1974 and was knighted in 1979.
Mackerras made his Metropolitan Opera debut leading Orfeo in the fall of 1972. He later returned many times to the Met, most notably leading new productions of The Makropulos Case and Káťa Kabanová. He also enjoyed a long relationship with San Francisco Opera, where he served as principal guest conductor. His repertory there ranged from The Makropulos Case to I Vespri Siciliani; in 2000, he celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday by conducting SFO's Der Rosenkavalier.
An opponent of what he saw as directors' increasing disregard for the composer's intentions, Mackerras would always speak his mind on the subject. He could also be tactless. In 1958, he was enjoying a burgeoning friendship with Benjamin Britten, but it ended when Mackerras made an off-color remark about the composer's sexuality — something the conductor bitterly regretted. An occasional abrasiveness of manner marred the general geniality and intense professionalism of a musician whose knowledge and experience were not easily rivaled; his repertory extended to more than 200 operas, with particular authority in the works of Handel, Mozart, Verdi, Sullivan and Janáček. A practical musician deeply admired by other musicians, he forged a distinguished international career and made an immense contribution to operatic life in the U.K.
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