Opera + Classical Music Features

Obituary: Sir Charles Mackerras

One of the world’s most eminent and respected conductors, Sir Charles Mackerras, has died at the age of 84 following a battle with cancer.

Given his extraordinary career, no obituary can ever do true justice to a man whose influence, knowledge, and pioneering musicianship made such an indelible impression on the course of classical music in the second half of the 20th century. Few, if any, figures within this world had such eclecticism as Sir Charles and he single-handedly made Janacek a household name.

Born in America, to Australian parents Sir Charles studied in Sydney and Prague and made his opera conducting debut at Sadler’s Wells in the ’50s and later became music director of ENO (1970-77) and Welsh National Opera (1987-1992). He was also Conductor Laureate of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Principal Guest Conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra, Conductor Emeritus of the Welsh National Opera and Principal Guest Conductor Emeritus of the San Francisco Opera. A specialist in Czech repertory, Sir Charles was Principal Guest Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra from 1997 2003. He also had close ties with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, The Scottish Chamber Orchestra, The Vienna Philharmonic, The Berlin Philharmonic and made regular appearances at the Salzburg Festival, Glyndebourne Festival, The Royal Opera, The Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera and ENO.

He conducted 30 operas for The Royal Opera – the first being Shostakovich’s Katerina Ismailova in 1964 and the last a wonderfully warm reading of The Cunning Little Vixen earlier this year. Antonio Pappano, Music Director of The Royal Opera said: “Charlie Mackerras’s impact on the development of musical performance practice over the last 60 years has been enormous. He was a force of nature, a true man of the theatre, who grappled with how to honour a composer’s intentions with the utmost rhythmic flair, drama and enthusiasm. His performances were always so full of life it is almost impossible to imagine he is no longer. A true friend of the Royal Opera House, he is irreplaceable; we will miss him terribly. Our sincere condolences to Judy and the rest of his family.”

His association with ENO (formerly Sadler’s Wells) goes back even further, and few who were present at what turned out to be his final performances there a superlative revival of The Turn of the Screw – will forget the intensity he brought to this score. Current Music Director, Ed Gardner told musicOMH.com: “Charles Mackerras was an extraordinary musician who was much loved and respected by everyone he worked with. Amongst all his amazing work Charles Mackerras did an immense amount as Music Director at ENO and before it Sadler’s Wells Opera. The breadth of repertoire that he championed was incredible. His stylistic interpretations of Mozart and Handel were like none before. He was renowned for his Strauss and Wagner and one wonders if anyone would be playing Janacek outside of the Czech Republic if it wasn’t for him. He continued to support the work of ENO right up to his death including most recently extraordinary performances of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw in Autumn 2009. Everyone at ENO will miss him terribly.”

Sir Charles was awarded a CBE in 1974 and was knighted in 1979. He was honoured with the Medal of Merit from the Czech Republic in 1996, made a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1997 and made a Companion of Honour in the 2003 Queen’s Birthday Honours. In May 2005 he was presented with the Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal and in November 2005 was the first recipient of the Queen’s Medal for Music.

He leaves behind an extraordinarily broad and diverse discography which includes an entire cycle of Janacek operas with the Vienna Philharmonic (Decca), a thrilling Cycle of Beethoven Symphonies with the RLPO, two sets of incomparable Mozart Symphonies with the SCO (Linn), a collection of opera in English including The Makropolous Case, Salome, Hansel and Gretel (which won a Grammy), The Magic Flute and Cosi fan tutte (Chandos).

I have had the privilege of attending countless concerts and operas conducted by Sir Charles, and all of them were memorable. He was at the vanguard of period practice and I’ll never forget an overwhelming performance of Don Giovanni conducted by him in the mid 80s for WNO his enthusiasm for, and wonderfully articulate conducting of the work, remained undiminished a quarter of a century later when he conducted the work for The Royal Opera. My passion for the operas of Janacek was instigated by listening to his peerless recordings of Jenufa, Kat’a Kabanova, The Cunning Little Vixen, The Makropolous Case and From the House of the Dead when a student and I count myself fortunate that I’ve been able to see him conduct nearly all of Janacek’s operas live in the opera house.

Sir Charles was one of the few conductors who could apparently conduct anything, and be completely at home within any idiom. I’ll never forget the overwhelming impact of the first night of WNO’s new Tristan und Isolde in Cardiff in 1993 when Dame Anne Evans sang her first Isolde, or being knocked sideways by the visceral impact of Berlioz’s epic The Trojans or countless peerless concerts with the Philharmonia. Words can really not do justice to the incredible life of Sir Charles Mackerras, but suffice it to say that the world of classical music has lost one of its leading lights and it’s hard, if not impossible, to imagine musical life in London without him. And for once this maxim is true we really will not see his like again.

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