Conductor Charles Mackerras dies

Australian conductor known as an authority on Czech music and Mozart dies in London, aged 84

The Australian conductor Sir Charles Mackerras, who led the opening concert at the Sydney Opera House and was the first non-Briton to lead the Last night of the Proms, has died in London at the age of 84.

He had cancer but was as due to conduct two concerts at the Albert Hall at the end of this month as part of the BBC proms which start tomorrow.

In a long career he conducted some of the world's leading orchestras and was the former director of music at English National Opera. He grew up in Australia but spent much of his working life in Britain after emigrating here in 1947.

"I always wanted to become a musician. I was hardly interested in anything else. From about eight or nine I had a sort of mania about it," Sir Charles told the Guardian in an interview to mark his 80th birthday in 2005.

In 1980, a year after he was knighted, he was the first person from outside the UK to conduct at the highly patriotic Last Night of the Proms.

Born in Schenectady New York state to Australian parents in 1925, he studied oboe and piano at the New South Wales Conservatorium. He went on to study in Prague and was an authority on both Czech music, particularly Janáček, and Mozart. But he was also known for the breadth of his repertoire which included Gilbert and Sullivan as well as Handel and Beethoven, and he pioneered performances using period instruments.

He conducted the first London performance of Janacek's Katya Kabanova in 1951 at Sadler's Wells, where he went on to become musical director, and his discography includes an award-winning cycle of Janáček operas performed by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in the early 1990s.

Over his career he conducted more than 30 operas by 15 different composers at the Royal Opera House, but to his disappointment he was passed up twice as musical director at Covent Garden.

Mackerras had a long association with the Sydney Symphony where he was principal oboist in 1946. He became its chief conductor and led the orchestra on the opening night of the Sydney Opera House in 1973.

An international figure, Mackerras made frequent appearances at the San Francisco Opera and also associated the with the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

In his Guardian interview he likened conducting an orchestra to hypnotism which he used to give up smoking. "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... I've never understood quite how it's done."

Roger Wright, director of the Proms and controller of BBC Radio, said the "range and quality of his work was extraordinary". He was saddened by a Proms season "without his remarkable musicianship, good humour and charm".

Sir Charles had been due to conduct works by Strauss and Schumann in a prom on July 25. Four days later in another prom concert he was to lead the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in works by Dvořák and Mozart.

Changes to those programmes will announced, Wright said. "We will be paying tribute to him on Radio 3 and dedicating a prom to his memory."

Roy McEwan, managing director of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, said: "Sir Charles was one of the most distinguished conductors of his generation. He had an almost unparalleled mastery of music across a huge range of styles and periods from Handel through Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak and Janacek and beyond".

Mackerras's agent, Robert Rattray, said the conductor retained an ability to inspire fellow musicians throughout his life. "His knowledge and his enthusiasm was something he not only could convey to these orchestral players but to some of the most eminent figures in the classical music world," he said.

Rory Jeffes, managing director of the Sydney Symphony, said: "Australia has lost a living treasure. We are all deeply saddened to have lost such an eminent conductor and a special part of the Sydney Symphony family."


Matthew Weaver

The GuardianTramp

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