Profile: Charles Mackerras

Charles Mackerras was born in the US and raised in Australia before coming to England to study music. A stay in Prague confirmed his desire to be a conductor and ignited a passion for Janacek. Though internationally acclaimed, he disdained stardom and missed out on the plum post at Covent Garden. Now approaching 80, he is still in great demand

Sir Charles Mackerras was conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Festival Hall in June when the death of the great Italian maestro Carlo Maria Giulini was announced. Giulini had had a long association with the Philharmonia in the 1960s and his death had to be marked. Some conductors would have milked the occasion, shed theatrical tears, perhaps changed the programme, but not Mackerras. He made a brief, well-judged speech, then put away the microphone and ignited the orchestra, letting a Mozart adagio - the scheduled item and, as he told the audience, apposite to the occasion - express the emotion felt by Giulini's fellow musicians.

The way Mackerras dealt with a potentially tricky situation was characteristic: no grandstanding, no false emotion, no veneer of extra-musical pretension. The music, pure and unadorned, was to be allowed to breathe and speak. In a business where egos can be as inflated as a Bruckner symphony, Mackerras's lack of pretension stands out - the "musician's musician", according to the great mezzo-soprano Dame Janet Baker, with whom he worked frequently in the 1960s and 70s; a conductor devoted, as baritone Simon Keenlyside puts it, to making great music rather than a great career.

Mackerras's career, too, has belatedly been recognised as great, but not because, like some jet-setting conductors, he set out to accumulate all music's most glittering prizes - his CV is surprisingly short of those defining music directorships at Covent Garden or La Scala, or chief conductor posts in Berlin, Chicago or London. Rather, his 60-year career has been characterised by a combination of musicological awareness, meticulous preparation and highly charged performance. He is unchallenged in his interpretation of the music of Janacek, which he was instrumental in bringing to the attention of non-Czech listeners in the 1950s, but is also unsurpassed in Mozart, Handel, Dvorak, Brahms, Britten and - whisper it to the purists - Gilbert and Sullivan. His repertoire is outrageously wide, a quality which, in mid-career, was held against him, and he brings the same intensity to The Mikado as he does to the Messiah

Mackerras is 80 on November 17 - he will conduct Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera at Covent Garden on the very day - and this year he has been festooned with awards. In May, he was presented with the Royal Philharmonic Society's Gold Medal - previous recipients have included Brahms, Elgar and Stravinsky -and in July, at a Prom devoted to his beloved Gilbert and Sullivan, he was given the inaugural Queen's Medal for Music.

Critics, not always noted for their generosity, have been adding their own birthday tributes. Marking the award by the Royal Philharmonic Society, the Daily Telegraph's opera critic, Rupert Christiansen, wrote: "I've been listening to him conduct for more than 30 years, and never once has he failed to switch on the electricity. He is the most purposeful of conductors: a Mackerras performance invariably has energy, pace, bounce, clarity, shape. With his unique gift for getting music moving, there's no slacking under his baton, no empty sentimentality or self-indulgence."

At his home, large but not lavish, in St John's Wood, London, Mackerras is the antithesis of the Grand Old Man. On display are citations for his CBE (1974), KBE (1979) and Companion of Honour (2003). His wife, Judy, explains how, when he received the latter award, the photographer was late and the meeting with the Queen had to be reprised. Lady Mackerras insists that, as in music-making, having a rehearsal had relaxed them, made for a better picture. In the Mackerras household, there is pride, satisfaction, that touch of ego which every conductor must have to control 100 musicians, but no self-adulation, no excess.

A lengthy photoshoot for a magazine is under way in the narrow garden - Lady Mackerras ferrying cups of tea to half a dozen people and looking for her husband's glasses whenever he loses them (he is juggling several sets). Mackerras, meanwhile, stands at the top of a set of steps beaming broadly and fretting about his brown corduroy trousers. "I will look like a geography lecturer at a redbrick university," he says, then laughs uproariously. At his age, there is no longer any need to worry about the public image, if indeed he ever did.

Mackerras's story, as Sir Brian McMaster, director of the Edinburgh Festival, remarks, is a wonderful one. He was born in Schenectady, New York, where his Australian father, an electrical engineer, was doing postgraduate work with General Electric. That gave Mackerras dual citizenship, although he later relinquished his US passport because of tax complications. When he was two his parents returned to Sydney and, even though he has been based in the UK for almost 60 years, he remains an Aussie at heart, direct, unvarnished, prepared, as he puts it, "to call a spade a bloody shovel". The Aussie twang is still there in his accent.

Mackerras's parents were keen on music but saw it as an amateur pursuit, the accompaniment to a steady career in one of the professions. They were reluctant to encourage their son's passion for music, at one point even sending him to a boarding school 16 miles from Sydney to put him out of reach of the conservatory of music, where he was spending all the time they felt he should have been devoting to academic study. It didn't work: employing a variety of strategems - he ran away from the school on several occasions - he got himself expelled. Eventually, his parents gave way, abandoned their plan for him to become a lawyer, and let him attend the conservatory full time, studying oboe and composition.

"I always wanted to become a musician," he says. "I was just crazy about it. It got to be that I was hardly interested in anything else. From about eight or nine I had a sort of mania about it. I had first started learning the violin, but didn't get on very well with that, possibly because the nun who taught me used to rap me over the knuckles with a pencil. Then I started learning the flute and got to play it quite well. But I read in a newspaper that there was a shortage of oboists, so I thought I'll move from the flute to the oboe."

Mackerras, by insisting on a musical career, was being true to his more distant antecedents: his great-great-great grandfather, Isaac Nathan, had been the first person to compose an opera in Australia, called, rather confusingly, Don John of Austria. Years later, Mackerras orchestrated it for a festival performance, the country's greatest musician paying his dues to his pioneering forebear.

After leaving school at 15, Mackerras joined the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and did orchestrations for commercial radio. The war was on and there were plenty of opportunities for the talented teenager. His self-confidence was apparent. Patricia Tuckwell, now Countess of Harewood, who was a contemporary of Mackerras's at the Sydney conservatory, recalls him presenting the celebrated conductor Eugene Ormandy, who was touring Australia, with his own quirky arrangement of "Waltzing Matilda". Ormandy, taken aback by the young man's sang froid, agreed to play it through in rehearsal.

Mackerras was a talented pasticheur, but recognised he would never be a composer. "I found my compositions were derivative," he says. "It was what they call Kapellemeistermusik - perfectly good but just like all the great composers you've ever heard." He decided, instead, to become a conductor. Ormandy encouraged him to go to the Juilliard School in New York, but instead he opted for London, leaving Australia on February 6 1947.

Initially, he was only in London for six months, but it was long enough to begin his association with the Sadler's Wells Opera Company (which later recast itself as English National Opera), meet and marry clarinettist Judy Wilkins, and sow the seed of his passion for Czech music. The latter was the result of a chance meeting which was to change his life. "One day I was sitting in a cafe in Kensington looking at a miniature score of Dvorak's Symphony No 7," he recalls, "when a man sitting opposite me said: 'Ah, I see you are studying the music of my country.' It turned out that he was an amateur cellist who'd come to England during the war. He was on a committee which chose British students to go to Czechoslovakia to study and suggested I apply to go to Prague."

Mackerras, who had been thwarted in his efforts to study conducting in London, applied, was given a grant, and married Judy Wilkins so that they could go to Prague together. In Czechoslovakia he was bowled over by the operas of Janacek - then barely known outside central Europe - and studied under Vaclav Talich, the former chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic. He was in Prague for less than a year, but got a thorough grounding in both the language and music of the country, and returned to the UK in 1948 determined to evangelise on Janacek's behalf.

Back at Sadler's Wells, he conducted the first UK performance of Katya Kabanova in 1951. Ernest Newman, the influential critic of the Sunday Times, dismissed Janacek as a "scrap-by-scrap composer", but the Manchester Guardian hailed the work as a masterpiece. Over the next two decades, with Mackerras as his principal champion, Janacek would take his place in the operatic repertoire, not just in the UK but around the world.

He accepts that his championing of Janacek - his recordings of the operas with the Vienna Philharmonic are regarded as definitive - is his single greatest contribution to music. "My specialities are many and various," he says, "and I like to think I have been one of the people who helped to change the perception and interpretation of baroque composers and classical composers such as Handel, Mozart, even Beethoven. But everybody knew these were great composers, they don't need me to tell them that, whereas they did with Janacek."

Mackerras's range is extraordinary. His manager, Robert Rattray at Askonos Holt, calls him a "polymath" and runs through the composers in which he is expert: Bach, Handel, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Mahler, Beethoven, Verdi, Janacek, Martinu, Strauss, Wagner, Britten. "I'm not sure there's anyone else who does all that," says Rattray. "[James] Levine is probably the closest to Charles, but there's no Bach and no Handel and, at the other end, no Janacek or Britten."

Yet, ironically, in mid-career this variety and facility in so many genres held Mackerras back. He was given the unflattering sobriquet "Chuck 'em Up Charlie" because, as a freelance for most of the 1950s and 60s, he would conduct anything, anywhere. His friend and former ENO colleague, Lord Harewood, says he and his wife Patricia advised Mackerras against such profligacy. "Years ago," recalls Harewood, "we used to say that the trouble about him is he's too available. If somebody rings up in the evening and says 'I'm going to record a violin concerto by Spohr in the morning, will you come and conduct it, the man who was going to conduct it has dropped out,' Charlie always used to say 'yes', get hold of the score, mug it up overnight and conduct it very well. At first he needed the work and gradually, as he was a very quick studier and an extremely capable conductor, it became part of what he felt was his usefulness. Benjamin Britten always used to say, 'Well, a composer has to be useful; you've got to do things that are needed,' and I think Charlie felt the same sort of thing. If somebody needed him, he'd better do it."

Mackerras came to be seen as what Brian McMaster, who worked with him at EMI, the ENO, Welsh National Opera and the Edinburgh Festival, calls a "budget-label conductor". "There was a syndrome in the recording industry that there were budget-label conductors and there were top-price conductors," explains McMaster. "If you were a budget-label conductor, you were a budget-label conductor and Charles was one because the important thing for him was to record the performances. He was perceived by orchestral players and audiences as a budget-label conductor. It never had much to do with reality."

The cultivation of an aura is at the heart of the classical music business. Karajan, Toscanini, Solti had that aura; they were huge personalities as well as great musicians, but they were not above polishing their legends. Because Mackerras has always been a practical musician, eager first and foremost to work and serve the music, he was denied a place among the musical glitterati throughout his most active decades. He was held in high regard but never quite admitted to the pantheon, was twice passed over for the job of music director at Covent Garden, and even now would have less global recognition than the telegenic Mutis, Mehtas and Maazels.

"His whole raison d'etre, his whole driving force, the whole point of his life is to pay tribute to the score," says Dame Janet Baker. "Nothing else matters at all. If there were bombs dropping, if somebody fainted on the stage, the only thing he would worry about is the damage to the score. He has extraordinary concentration on the work in hand. All great conductors have this to a degree, but with Charles it's as though for that moment he exists for nothing else and everybody around him is expected to have the same kind of end in view. If you respect that, he is a marvellous person to work with."

"Are the big music directorships the mark of a great career?" asks baritone Simon Keenlyside, who has worked frequently with Mackerras over the past few years. "Or are they the mark of a great marketed career? Perhaps if he'd done those jobs, he wouldn't have had time for the Janacek scholarship. He's got a very broad base, and I like that."

"When I was younger I was extremely ambitious and I could never understand why certain other conductors were more successful at getting engagements and positions than I was," says Mackerras, "but I stopped bothering about that quite early on. All these positions are really poisoned chalices anyway, because everybody in authority seems to have a different idea as to the ideal way to run an opera house."

He is, however, clearly disappointed not to have been made music director at Covent Garden when the post changed hands in 1971 and 1987. "I don't understand quite why it didn't happen," he says. "The first time it was partly because the English National Opera and Covent Garden were vacant more or less at the same time [Mackerras went to ENO], but after the era of Colin Davis it would have been appropriate to appoint me. I'm disappointed that it didn't happen, but they appointed a very good person [Bernard Haitink] and I can't really complain because I have since worked at Covent Garden almost as much as if I had been the musical director, without having the unpleasant task of sacking anybody."

Mackerras's music directorships elsewhere have been relatively brief in a profession where 10 years or more is seen as the norm. He did three years in Hamburg (where he was number two), seven years at ENO, three years in Sydney, five years in Wales. That suggests an impatience with administration and an unwillingness to apply himself to long periods of orchestra building. What has always mattered most to him was how the orchestra played on the night. While at ENO he is said to have made sure that the best musicians in the orchestra were always available for his performances.

Rattray, while believing that Mackerras was denied the plum positions because he was perceived by musical snobs as ubiquitous, thinks that ultimately his career was not harmed. "Looking at it now, it seems to me that it doesn't matter," he says. "It enabled him to continue and plot his path with the San Francisco Opera, the Metropolitan Opera [in New York], the Paris Opera, where he did a huge amount, and the Vienna State Opera. So he was able to maintain this amazing international connection, musical and scholastic, which would have been impossible if he had become bogged down at Covent Garden."

Mackerras has always been as much musicologist as conductor, and his research on Mozart and Handel, the way he draws on period practice to ornament their compositions, has been prodigious. He worked in the 1940s and 50s with the Goldsborough Ensemble, which later became the English Chamber Orchestra, playing baroque music in the style of the period and stripping away the lushness that symphony orchestras steeped in romantic music had imposed.

"Charles was interested in authenticity before it became popular," says Emanuel Hurwitz, now 86, the former leader of the English Chamber Orchestra. "Our orchestra did mostly Handel operas and Bach cantatas. We were specialists in that period, so in the 1940s we were already used to authentic playing. The only difference was that in those days, although we were using period bows, we were still using modern violins. Charles was a real young Australian and shouted very loudly to the orchestra all the time."

Nothing was allowed to stand in the way of the perfect performance. "He'd want to hear every word, he'd want to hear every note of the decoration and if one slipped, which you could so easily, he would remind you," says Valerie Masterson, a leading soprano at ENO when Mackerras was music director in the 1970s. "I can remember recording Julius Caesar, having done it a lot with him, and in the middle of the recording session he suddenly turned to me and said, 'You know you sing a B there, well really it should have been a B flat'. I hadn't a clue what he was talking about and the decoration was so intense at that point that it could have been any one of about 5,000 notes, so I just said, 'Oooh, Charles, I don't know that I'm going to remember which note it is in that very fast run and I think we'll have to hope for the best.' He kind of accepted it, but that will jar with him every time he hears it. He'll think, 'That's not right, I should have told her, it should have been changed.' "

"Charles may seem brusque," explains Simon Keenlyside, "but what he's waiting for is you to present him with things and to be able to deliver them. If you can't deliver them, then it'll be irritating to him and he will steamroller you. His ideas are fabulous and he's very generous with his music-making, but you have to be on top of things at all times."

"He never let up for a minute in rehearsal, he never let anything go," says Janet Baker. "It used to drive you mad because he'd worked so hard. But he infected you with that vigour and that work ethic." And the results, she says, could be sublime. "I remember a performance of [Massenet's] Werther. At the end of the opera, Charlotte does a marvellous letter scene. It's not very long but it's beautiful writing, one of those moments which are terribly well known to audiences and singers. We launched into the letter scene, and somehow or other the rapport between the pit and the podium and me on the stage - it was somewhere else again. I can remember feeling 'this is perfection'. You don't expect perfection with the human endeavour; something always creeps in to make it human. But that was a moment between a performer and a conductor in which I think we reached the most extraordinary heights of communication. I've never forgotten it. To have that once in a lifetime is remarkable."

The past 10 years have been a golden period for Mackerras. A problem with his right shoulder in his late 60s had threatened to end his career, but an operation repaired it and, in his 70s, he has at last received the plaudits denied him earlier. "It's a strange thing," he says. "There suddenly was a time when everybody seemed to take me terribly seriously. Critics started writing ecstatic things about my performances and about the originality of my concepts, to use that awful word, of the classics. Orchestras began to treat me with huge deference and respect, and I felt like saying, 'Well, I love working with you, but I have been here for the last 50 years.' "

He has enjoyed himself as principal guest with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic, the Czech Philharmonic (which even offered him the music directorship in the mid-90s) and the Philharmonia; made his debuts at the Salzburg Festival and with the Berlin Philharmonic (at the advanced age of 78); was active in the US until jet lag got the better of him in his mid-70s; and has renewed a relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic which had been dormant for more than a decade.

"Orchestras on the whole tend to mistrust conductors, but they are a great deal nicer to me than they used to be," says Mackerras. "It's rather nice not having to impress orchestras all the time with how good you are, which the young conductor has to all the time. Now, I just feel that I have to do my best."

Mackerras is fascinating on the conductor's art - on the way different conductors conjure different sounds from orchestras. A lifelong believer in the power of hypnotism - he used it to help quit smoking - he presents the relationship between conductor and players as almost mystical. "A great deal of the conductor's art is, as it were, hypnotising them by your very presence, emanating what you feel about the music. A conductor can make the orchestra play with a nasty sound by certain gestures, or he can make them play with a round sound. It is really extraordinary and I've never understood quite how it's done, but I know that if different conductors stand in front of the orchestra and say nothing, the sound will still be completely different."

At 80, Mackerras shows little sign of slowing up. He is conducting Mozart's unfinished opera Zaide at the Edinburgh Festival on Tuesday, goes to the Czech Republic to conduct the Prague Symphony Orchestra next month, will conduct Fidelio in Edinburgh and London's Barbican in early October and three concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic later that month, and then heads for Covent Garden, where his birthday performance of Un Ballo in Maschera is sure to be a heady occasion. The house that never quite gave him the top job is now his natural home.

"My wife always jokingly says - well, I don't know how jokingly - that I only seem to be happy when I'm standing in front of an orchestra," says Mackerras. "There's an element of truth in that. I would be very sad if I had to retire. In fact, I'd quite like to die on the podium." Then he laughs. "Well, something like that anyway."

Sir Alan Charles MacLaurin Mackerras

Born: November 17 1925, Schenectady, New York.

Education: Sydney Grammar School; King's School, Parramatta; New South Wales Conservatorium of Music, Sydney; Prague 1947-'48.

Married: 1947 Judy Wilkins (two daughters, Fiona and Catherine).

Career: 1954-56 chief conductor BBC Concert Orchestra; '66-69 conductor with Hamburg Opera ; '70-77 music director Sadler's Wells/English National Opera; '87-92 music director Welsh National Opera; '93-96 principal guest conductor Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; '97-2003 principal guest conductor Czech Philharmonic; currently principal guest conductor Philharmonia.


Stephen Moss

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Classical: Fidelio | The Marriage of Figaro | Xenakis

Classical: Sir Charles Mackerras celebrates his 80th, Figaro adds up to a dashing night out and Xenakis's mathematical music packs them in, says Anthony Holden.

Anthony Holden

15, Oct, 2005 @11:58 PM


Classical: Sir Charles Mackerras and ENO feel Janacek's pain to eloquent effect in The Makropoulos Case, while the COE work wonders with lovelorn Berlioz, writes Anthony Holden.

Anthony Holden

21, May, 2006 @12:44 AM

Classical: Un Ballo in Maschera | Budapest Festival Orchestra

Classical: The veteran conductor Sir Charles Mackerras is served well by his stars but less so by his director, says George Hall.

George Hall

20, Nov, 2005 @2:27 AM

Anthony Holden on Orlando | The Excursions of Mr Broucek | Orfeo

Opera: Anthony Holden on Orlando | The Excursions of Mr Broucek | Orfeo

Anthony Holden

04, Mar, 2007 @2:12 AM

The Observer profile: Daniel Barenboim

The Observer profile: His support for Palestine has prompted outrage in his native Israel but has spawned his greatest passion - his Arab/Israeli orchestra. Now, in this year's Reith lectures, Daniel Barenboim will tell how music can bring harmony to a divided world.

Peter Beaumont

01, Apr, 2006 @11:51 PM

No music, maestro, please

Opera: La Forza Del Destino, Covent Garden, London | La Boheme/The Cunning Little Vixen, Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury | Les Paladins, Barbican, London

Anthony Holden

24, Oct, 2004 @12:10 AM

Classical: Proms 5, 6 & 7, Royal Albert Hall, London SW7

Classical: Kurt Masur conducts two orchestras in dazzling style, and Striggio's 60 voices are free at last, says Stephen Pritchard.

Stephen Pritchard

21, Jul, 2007 @11:33 PM

Article image
The 50 greatest arts videos on YouTube

Among millions of clips is a treasure trove of rare and fascinating arts footage lovingly posted by fans

Ajesh Patalay

30, Aug, 2008 @11:01 PM

50 arts secrets revealed
Do directors find sex scenes embarrassing? Is the urinal in my local pub art? How does a triangle player make a living? What’s the difference between pornographic and erotic photos? Our experts from the worlds of music, literature, film and art answer those intriguing questions you’ve always wanted to ask. Interviews by Ally Carnwath, Tom Templeton and Katie Toms

Ally Carnwath, Tom Templeton and Katie Toms

02, Mar, 2008 @1:02 PM

Sex, havoc, obsession - it must be Ian McEwan

The novelist's sharp libretto is well served, and Juan Diego Flórez is upstaged

Anthony Holden

02, Nov, 2008 @12:01 AM