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Edited by Nigel Simeone and John Tyrrell
ISBN: 978 1 84383 966 8
John Stein, former leader of the Orchestra of WNO, judges Sir Charles Mackerras to be one of the two greatest conductors with whom he had worked closely. The other was Pierre Boulez. ‘Both of them had the ability to make an orchestra play better than it thought possible,’ writes Stein in his essay ‘Remembering Charles in Wales’. ‘The moment Mackerras came into the pit there was a sense of excitement. He’d fling his arms and we’d be off and flying; on many nights that would be the start of something unforgettable.’
Born in New York to Australian parents, Mackerras grew up in Sydney before moving to London in 1947. A British Council scholarship to study in Prague led to his lifelong advocacy of the music of Leoš Janáček; at the age of 25 Mackerras conducted Kát’a Kabanová at Sadler’s Wells, the first Janáček opera to be staged in Britain. Towards the end of his life, Mackerras suggested that his own obituary would be: ‘He forced Janáček on the world!’ Indeed, several conductors, including John Eliot Gardiner and Simon Rattle, went to Mackerras for so-called ‘driving lessons’ in Janáček’s scores.
By 1950, Mackerras had conducted several operas in Cardiff with the fledgling Welsh National Opera company. ‘It’s an atrocious orchestra,’ he told his mother in a letter. ‘They can’t count their bars and play shockingly out of tune.’ He quickly found the best ways of working with particular players: breathing with some so they felt secure; deliberately not looking at others in case it made them nervous.
Mackerras conducted the first performances of The Turn of the Screw in North America in 1957. But jokes made by Mackerras about Britten’s homosexuality, which Mackerras admitted to being a stupid lapse, caused a serious rupture with the composer. ‘Am I a lecher just because I enjoy the company of children?’ demanded Britten. Mackerras cherished his relationship with Britten, whom he called ‘the greatest musician I ever knew’.
Charles Mackerras helped pioneer the period instrument movement. He had an infallible memory for tempo, was a fine linguist and wrote letters of complaint to restaurateurs about piped music. Simeone and Tyrrell have produced a stimulating book about an inspiring life.
John Robert Brown
First published in Classical Music Magazine, May 2015. Used by kind permission; reproduction forbidden.