Taking over from Charles Mackerras at the Proms

Charles Mackerras loved the Proms and planned to conduct two this month. Tom Service speaks to the musicians now picking up his baton

The death last week of the conductor Charles Mackerras is a huge blow for music. It has also presented the Proms organisers with a delicate problem. In just a few days, they have had to find two conductors to replace Mackerras in the Proms he was scheduled to conduct.

These concerts would have been Mackerras's 53rd and 54th appearances in five decades. The first, Prom 12, is Sunday's Viennese programme with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, which will now be given in his memory. The second, Prom 17, is a late-night lineup of Dvorák and Mozart with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and takes place next Thursday.

These are quintessential Mackerras programmes, which has made the task of replacing him very difficult. But replacements have been found: Russian maestro Vassily Sinaisky, chief guest conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, will lead the Viennese Prom. Douglas Boyd, like Mackerras an oboist-turned-conductor, will lead next week.

I asked 63-year-old Sinaisky how he felt about taking Mackerras's place. "It's a complete coincidence," he says, "but when I took the phone call about Sir Charles, I was listening to one of his recordings. I never had the chance to meet him, but I respect hugely what he did. I am changing nothing in his programme, except that we will play a Dvorák Slavonic Dance in his memory, instead of one of the Strauss waltzes. He had something so special to communicate, and above all in Czech music." Mackerras almost single-handedly brought Janácek to an international audience, having studied in Prague after the war. His recordings of Janácek's operas and orchestral music remain gold standards.

Sinaisky will be performing a Schumann piece he has never conducted before: the Overture, Scherzo and Finale Opus 52. It will be a challenge to learn a new piece at the same time as rehearsing the BBC Phil for his own Prom tomorrow. "The players all have a deep respect and love for Sir Charles, since he often worked with them. They are hugely sad and disappointed, but they will play the concert, as I will, from their hearts. And it's strange: my plan was to stay in London after my concert and see Sir Charles's programme. I wanted to meet him, and tell him how much I respected him. But now – well, c'est la vie."

Scottish-born Boyd played oboe for Mackerras when he conducted Brahms's First Symphony with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. "It was a fantastic experience," he says. "He brought such a gamut of emotion to his conducting. He had this amazing combination of knowledge, and [brought] fantasy and imagination [to] his performances."

Among the eulogies for Mackerras, it is his selflessness that has shone through. "He really was egoless," Boyd says. "Even if you didn't agree with everything he did as an interpreter – and as a musician, you never agree with everything – you knew he was coming from a position of complete authority, and total integrity." Boyd was in America when he heard the news. "I just couldn't believe it. And then, 10 minutes later, I got this call asking me to take over his Prom."

Prom 17 might have been tailormade for Boyd. "One of the first concerts I [conducted] was these two pieces – the Dvorák Wind Serenade and Mozart Gran Partita for 13 wind instruments. And I knew them completely as a player, having toured them for years. So, bizarrely, it's the easiest possible programme for me to step in to."

The SCO was also one of the first orchestras Boyd was let loose on as a conductor. No orchestra had a closer relationship with Mackerras than the SCO; he was their principal conductor from 1992 to 1995, and later named their "conductor laureate". Has Boyd been listening to Mackerras's recording of the Mozart? "No, I'll steer clear of that. Much as I respect Charlie, he would be the first to want a fellow conductor to have his own take on it."

It's a tribute of which Mackerras would surely approve: two concerts that put the music and musicians first, and that will make Mozart, Dvorák and Strauss speak to the Proms audiences for whom Mackerras loved to perform.

Tom Service

The GuardianTramp

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