Charles Mackerras is one of those versatile musicians whose art encompasses many genres. Born in Schenectady, New York, in 1925, he was in fact raised in Australia, where he studied oboe, piano, and composition at the New South Wales Conservatorium in Sydney. In 1945 he joined the Sydney Symphony Orchestra as principal oboist (later he became their chief conductor), but came to Europe in 1947. I first became aware of him when I bought his LP of music by Arthur Sullivan which he arranged for the ballet ‘Pineapple Poll’. I became conscious then of his growing reputation as a champion of the Czech composer Janacek – indeed one could say he introduced him to the West, becoming the foremost conductor of his unusual and often bizarre operas, two of which I have seen in performance.
He has had a long association with Sadlers Wells in London (later English National Opera. He was the First conductor of the Hamburg Opera for three years and has been a regular conductor of operas in London’s Royal Opera House.
He regularly conducts at The Metropolitan Opera, New York, Welsh National Opera and San Francisco Opera. He has also pioneered the study and practical realisation of period performance techniques, as with his landmark 1959 recording of Handel’s “Fireworks Music” in its original wind band instrumentation, and has made many recordings with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment since.
Mackerras had his 80th. birthday in 2005 and there were suitable concerts to celebrate his many achievements over the years including a performance of Verdi’s’Un Ballo in Maschera’ at Covent Garden. He just goes on conducting! Last year, for example, he was conducting the Prague Symphony, Czech Philharmonic, the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras and the London Philharmonia, whom we heard under his baton in Bristol in February of last year.
That was a memorable concert which included Beethoven’s Choral Symphony. Although he needed to be seated for much of the evening, he otherwise showed little sign of his age. He had the aura of a favourite uncle, smiling at both audience and orchestra as if it was his pleasure to preside over a very special occasion. It was a performance of precision and passion.
I see from a recent review that he was performing this week in Scotland, conducting an orchestra with which he is now closely associated – the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. He has made recordings of seven Mozart operas with them. Together they have recently recorded the last four symphonies and, responding to rave reviews, I have bought this two disc CD (308 Linn records) and am relishing the rhythmic strength and delicacy of works that, together with the piano concertos, represents for me the very best of Mozart.