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Sir Charles Mackerras - 17 November 1925 – 14 July 2010: An appreciation (BK)

Sir Charles Mackerras died on Wednesday aged 84 and surely will be much mourned by the many thousands who followed his long career in concert halls and opera houses or through his recordings.

Born in America of Australian parents, Sir Charles was taken home to Sydney at the age of two and later studied oboe, piano, and composition at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music. After becoming principal oboist in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (1943-1946) he then moved to London, where he joined the orchestra at Sadler's Wells while studying conducting with Michael Mudie. He received a British Council Scholarship in 1947 which enabled him to study with Václav Talich at the Prague Academy of Music. This provided him with a thorough grounding in Czech music, a subject on which he quickly became an acknowledged expert as well as its great champion. There is little doubt that the worldwide popularity of Janáček’s music in particular, especially the operas, was due in no small part to Charles Mackerras’s enthusiastic influence.

After returning to London in 1948, Sir Charles became an assistant conductor at Sadler's Wells Opera until 1953 when he was engaged as principal conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra, subsequently appearing as a guest conductor with almost all of the major British orchestras. His debut in 1963 at London's Royal Opera conducting Shostakovich's Katerina Izmailova was followed by his appointment as Principal Conductor at the Hamburg State Opera. He returned in 1970 to Sadler's Wells (renamed the English National Opera in 1974) as the company’s Music Director, a position he held until 1978. Other important engagements soon followed: he made his Metropolitan Opera debut in New York conducting Gluck's Orfeo et Euridice in 1972, from 1976 to 1979 he was chief guest conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London and after a stint as chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (1982-1985), he became artistic director of the Welsh National Opera in Cardiff (1987-1992). He was also principal guest conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Glasgow (from 1992) and has remained the SCO’s Conductor Laureate ever since. He also held similar positions with the Welsh National Opera, the San Francisco Opera, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Charles Mackerras was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1974, and was knighted in 1979 for his services to music. In 2003 he became a Companion of Honour in the Queen's Birthday Honours and in 2005 he was presented not only with the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Gold Medal but also became the first recipient of the Queen’s Medal for Music. Other international honours awarded to Sir Charles included the Medal of Merit from the Czech Republic (1996) and a Companion of the Order of Australia in 2005. He was also given honorary D. Mus degrees from the Universities of Hull, York, Nottingham, Brno in the Czech Republic, Griffith in Brisbane, Australia, and Oxford. He celebrated his 80th birthday and his 50th anniversary with the Royal Opera House in 2005, conducting Un Ballo in Maschera and marked his 55th year at the Edinburgh Festival in 2006 conducting the complete Beethoven Symphonies. He was recently named Honorary President of the Edinburgh International Festival Society

Sir Charles’ scholastic work on Czech music and his promotion of it were legendary. He had conducted the London Philharmonic’s first professional performance in the UK of the "original version" of Glagolitic Mass with the Brighton Festival Chorus at the Royal Festival Hall in 1993. He then went on to bring most of Janáček’s music to the UK, Europe, the USA and Australia. This was a remarkable achievement in itself, but Sir Charles’s interests and apparently boundless energies were even more wide-ranging. He was also an expert on Mozart’s operas and somehow managed an operatic output which ranged from the baroque to Wagner and beyond including that most English of Victorian institutions, Gilbert and Sullivan.

His discography spanned the period from 78 rpm ‘records’ including his own ballet score Pineapple Poll based on music from the G and S repertoire which was initially released on six 78 rpm discs, through to a two SACD set of Mozart’s last four symphonies with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra issued by Linn in 2007. This huge catalogue of recordings, most of which are still available, is an important legacy from a much-loved, respected and truly great musician.

Bill Kenny

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