17 November 1925
Schenectady, Schenectady County, New York, United States
14 July 2010 (aged 84)
Sir Alan Charles Maclaurin Mackerras, AC, CH, CBE (born 17 November 1925, died 14 July 2010) was an Australian conductor. He was a noted authority on the operas of Janáček and Mozart, and the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan.
Alan Charles Maclaurin Mackerras was born of Australian parents, Alan and Catherine Mackerras, in Schenectady, New York. His father, an electrical engineer, was doing postgraduate work in Schenectady with General Electric. The family moved to Sydney when Charles was aged two. He was the eldest of their seven children, including five brothers, the others being Malcolm, Colin, Alastair and Neil and two sisters, Joan and Elisabeth. They are descendants of the pioneer Australian musician Isaac Nathan.
Mackerras attended Sydney Grammar School and The King's School in Parramatta, a suburb of Sydney. He studied oboe, piano and composition at the NSW State Conservatorium of Music in Sydney and eventually became principal oboist of the Sydney Symphony. He settled in England in 1946. He won a British Council Scholarship in 1947, enabling him to study conducting with Václav Talich at the Prague Academy of Music.
In 1947, Mackerras married Judy Wilkins, a clarinettist. They have two daughters, Fiona (who died in September 2007 and Catherine. He is the uncle of the Australian conductor Alexander Briger (Australian World Orchestra) and the British-born conductor Drostan Hall (Camerata Chicago, USA).
Returning to England from Prague in 1948, Mackerras began his life-long association with Sadler's Wells Opera, now English National Opera, conducting, among others, Janáček, Handel, Gluck, Bach, and Donizetti. In the 1950s, well before the "authenticity" movement had come to general notice, Mackerras focussed on the study and practical realization of period performance techniques, culminating in his landmark 1959 recording of Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks using the original wind band instrumentation. In his 1965 performance of The Marriage of Figaro, he added the ornamentation in a historically informed style.
Mackerras also strongly championed the music of Janáček outside of Czechoslovakia, where Mackerras himself has judged his work with Janáček as his single most important legacy to music. In 1951 he conducted the British premiere of Káťa Kabanová. He was also a noted authority on Mozart's operas and those of Sir Arthur Sullivan. His Sullivan ballet arrangement Pineapple Poll (1951, just after the expiration of copyright on Sullivan's music), based on one of Gilbert's Bab Ballads, continues to be a popular light music favourite in English speaking countries. Mackerras also arranged music by Giuseppe Verdi for the ballet The Lady and the Fool. He also arranged a suite from John Ireland's score for the 1946 film The Overlanders, after Ireland's death in 1962.
He became principal conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra from 1954 to 1956. In 1963 he made his debut at London's Covent Garden conducting Shostakovich's Katerina Izmailova. He directed the Hamburg State Opera from 1965 to 1969 and the English National Opera from 1970 to 1977. In 1972 he made his Metropolitan Opera debut in New York conducting Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice. Mackerras worked closely with Benjamin Britten for a time, but after he had joked about Britten's relationships with young boys, they severed their relationship. The events are described in John Bridcut's Britten's Children.
He conducted the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in the opening concert of the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House, in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II, in 1973. Birgit Nilsson sang in the all-Wagner program.
Mackerras was a guest conductor of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company for The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado during the 1975 D'Oyly Carte Centenary season at the Savoy. He later joined the D'Oyly Carte Opera Trust and later its Board of Trustees. In 1982 he was the first Australian national appointed chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony, a post he held until 1985.
In 1980 he became the first non-Briton to conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Last Night of the Proms.
Mackerras directed the Welsh National Opera from 1987 to 1992, where his Janáček productions won particular praise. One of the highlights of the 1991 season was the reopening of the Estates Theatre in Prague, scene of the original premiere of Mozart's Don Giovanni, in which Mackerras conducted a new production of that opera to mark the bicentenary of Mozart's death. As Conductor Emeritus of Welsh National Opera, his successes have included Tristan und Isolde, The Yeomen of the Guard, and La clemenza di Tito (all of which productions were brought to London). He was the principal guest conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (SCO) from 1992 to 1995, and now holds the title of Conductor Laureate with the SCO. He was principal guest conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra from 1993 to 1996. During the same period, he was also principal guest conductor of the San Francisco Opera. From 1998 to 2001 he was the music director of the Orchestra of St. Luke's.
In 2004 he became principal guest conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra. He was also principal guest conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. With the Royal Opera, he had recently conducted productions of Gounod's Roméo et Juliette and Handel's Semele. Mackerras had also had a long association with the Metropolitan Opera, where he had conducted The Makropulos Case, Káťa Kabanová and The Magic Flute.
In August 2008, Mackerras was announced as the new Honorary President of the Edinburgh International Festival Society. He was only the second person to hold this role, after Yehudi Menuhin. As the original part of the largest arts festival in the world, the Edinburgh International Festival featured performances from Mackerras throughout six decades since his first in 1952.
Mackerras has summarised his strategy for working with an orchestra as follows:
"I believe it's very important to edit orchestral parts explicitly and as thoroughly as possible, so that the musicians can play them without too much rehearsal. For instance, the other day I did all the Schumann symphonies with very little rehearsal at all. Because the parts were clearly marked, particularly with regard to dynamics, we were able to play them without needing to do that much preliminary work, focusing our attention on the interpretation rather than the technical business of who plays too loud or too soft."
Mackerras was the President of Trinity College of Music, London. He also served as Music Advisor to City Opera of Vancouver, a professional chamber opera company led by conductor Charles Barber.
Although suffering from cancer, he continued to work right up to his death on the 14 July 2010. He had been due to conduct two concerts at the Albert Hall in July 2010 as part of the BBC proms.
Mackerras made his earliest records for EMI, in the final days of 78 rpm records, and he has continued recording well into the era of compact discs in the multi-channel Super Audio CD format. In 1952, he conducted his first recording of his own Pineapple Poll ballet, which was issued on twelve sides, and subsequently transferred to LP. Some of his early recording sessions were for Walter Legge, standing in when Otto Klemperer and other eminent conductors were ill.
He did not always restrict himself to the classical repertoire. For example, on 4 May 1955 he recorded Albert Arlen's song Clancy of the Overflow (to Banjo Paterson's poem) with Peter Dawson and the London Symphony Orchestra.
A smaller UK record company, Pye, asked Mackerras to record Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks. ‘We had to do that in the middle of the night, in order to get our twenty-six oboes together.’ The recording, issued in 1959, was received with critical acclaim for attempting to reproduce the sound Handel would have heard rather than the smoother orchestral arrangements usually played at that time.
In the 1960s Mackerras made the first recording of the Italian version of Gluck's Orfeo. For DG he conducted Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, and for EMI a ‘new-look’ Messiah, with scholarly texts, small forces and sprightly tempi. He followed that up with Handel's Saul and Israel in Egypt for DG.
In 1986, he conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in the soundtrack to Carroll Ballard's film Nutcracker: The Motion Picture, the first full-length film version of Tchaikovsky's ballet to be given a major release in theatres.
Mackerras's recordings of the complete symphonies of Mozart (Telarc), Brahms (Telarc), Beethoven (EMI and Hyperion), and three Mahler symphonies, as well as the Mozart operas, continue to attract critical acclaim, as do his recordings of the operas of Janáček (Decca, Supraphon, and Chandos), and major works of Handel, Dvořák, Martinů, Richard Strauss, Shostakovich, Sibelius, Donizetti, Elgar, Delius, Walton, Holst, and Haydn, among many others.
For Telarc he has also conducted Gilbert and Sullivan's Trial by Jury, H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, The Mikado, and The Yeomen of the Guard. In collaboration with David Mackie he reconstructed Sullivan's "lost" cello concerto, conducting its first performance with cellist Julian Lloyd Webber and the London Symphony Orchestra at Barbican Hall, London, in April 1986, and a recording for EMI shortly afterwards. In 1997 Mackerras recorded Le delizie dell'amor, with the soprano Andrea Rost, for Sony Classical. His most recent release for that label was Lucia di Lammermoor with the Hanover Band (S2K 63174). Other recent recordings for Sony Classical include Chopin's two piano concertos with Emanuel Ax (SK 60771) and (SK 63371). He has also recently recorded Dvořák's Rusalka (Decca) and Slavonic Dances (Supraphon), Josef Suk's A Summer Tale (Decca), Mozart's Piano Concertos Nos. 20 and 24 with Alfred Brendel (Philips), and Brahms's two orchestral serenades (Telarc). For Linn Records he recorded a two-SACD set of Mozart's last four symphonies with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in August 2007.
Charles Mackerras was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 1974 New Year Honours, and was knighted in the 1979 New Year Honours. In 1978 he was presented with the Janáček medal for services to Czech music, on stage at the Coliseum Theatre, by the Czechoslovak ambassador. In 1996 he received the Medal of Merit from the Czech Republic, and in 1997 he was made a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC). In 2001 he was awarded the Centenary Medal created to mark the centenary of the Federation of Australia. In 2003 he was made a Companion of Honour (CH) in the Queen's Birthday Honours. In 2005, he was presented with the Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal, and he was also the first recipient of the Queen's Medal for Music, announced by then Master of the Queen's Music, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall prior to a Proms performance of HMS Pinafore.
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