Tuesday 20 March 2018

Farewell to the modest master of the oboe

Classical music lost one of its most distinguished practitioners recently with the death at the age of 84 of Charles Mackerras.

The son of Australian parents, he was born in Schenectady, in upstate New York. The elder Mackerras was an electrical engineer, who was at the local university taking a post-graduate degree.

The family went back to Australia and had notions that the young lad would become a lawyer, but Charlie had other ideas. The only thing that interested him was music.

When he was in his teens he started at conservatory full time. He played piano, violin and flute, and supported himself by getting gigs with a local radio orchestra. He'd also do transcriptions of recordings, and sell the scores. World War Two was raging, and sheet music was hard to come by.

After a period as second oboe with what would become the Sydney Symphony Orchestra -- he'd taken up the instrument after he'd read that there was a shortage of players in Australia -- he did what many have done and moved to London.

There, he got a spot as an oboist at Sadler's Wells. But what Charles Mackerras himself called "a most extraordinary coincidence" had a profound influence on his future career.

He was having a coffee in a café in Kensington, leafing through a score of Dvorák's Seventh Symphony that he'd just bought, when a man sitting opposite said: "I see you're reading the music of my country".

The stranger was a Czech exile who tipped him off about scholarships for study in Prague. Charlie won one of them.

He discovered the operas of Leos Janáèek, unknown at the time outside central Europe. It was Mackerras who effectively introduced his music to English-speaking audiences.

But Janáèek was only one composer in the Australian conductor's vast repertoire. With the same enterprise that had led him to take up the oboe, Charles Mackerras developed a huge range.

He was popular with audiences around the world, and he was a major figure at home. He was on the rostrum for the inaugural concert at the Sydney Opera House in 1973.

In its obituary, ABC Television, the country's public broadcaster, noting that he'd conducted all the world's greatest symphony orchestras and opera companies, called him "one of Australia's greatest cultural exports".

The man himself saw it rather differently. It wasn't about him. "Classical music," he said, "is a great thing to serve."

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 9.30 each Saturday morning. ghamilton@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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