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July 15, 2010

Charles Mackerras, eminent Australian conductor, dies at 84

The classical music world has lost yet another gleaming light, Australian conductor Charles Mackerras. His extraordinary grasp of style and ability to generate richly expressive performances earned him worldwide admiration. He died Wednesday in London from cancer at the age of 84.

His legacy, preserved on many recordings, is especially notable for the deep insights he revealed in the works of two very different composers, Mozart and Janacek. Mackerras was just as persuasive and engaging in a wide range of repertoire, from Handel to Gilbert & Sullivan.

Mackerras, born in Schenectady, N.Y., to Australian parents in 1925, was also a champion of period instrument performance, without ever becoming pedantic about it. He held posts with the Sydney Symphony (he opened the iconic Sydney Opera House), BBC Symphony, and Orchestra of St. Luke's, among others. He was a most welcome guest at the Metropolitan Opera and San Francisco Opera.

Knighted in 1979 and given numerous other honors during his long career, Sir Charles Mackerras leaves a considerable void. I've attached a video shot a year ago during a Mozart symphony recording session with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (he was conductor laureate of that ensemble); this brief glimpse captures the conductor's magic quite well, in conversation and on the podium. I follow that with "Venus, the Bringer of Peace," from Holst's "The Planets," filmed during a Proms concert last year:

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:56 AM | | Comments (5)


A great conductor has passed away. I will never forget the great sound he obtained from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, where he was a welcome guest conductor for so many years. And he made some of the best post-Ancerl recordings of the Czech Philharmonic. While he was justly known for his Mozart and Janacek, his repertorie was much bigger, as you pointed out. He will be missed.

P.S. One of my greatest regrets is that the Czech Philharmonic did not selected Mackerras as their music director - they chose Gerd Albrecht instead??? When they finally offered him the post, he declined as beeing was too old, though he continued to guest conduct.

Only last month he lead Cosi fan Tutte at Glyndebourne. Who knew?

And I gather he had some big gigs on his schedule in the next few weeks. Very sad. TIM

I rarely acknowledge the titles "Sir" or "Dame," because I honestly don't believe in them (no status-title elitism for me, thank you!), but Sir Charles Mackerras proved to be an absolute exception to my feelings.

He was my TRUE introduction to the symphonies of Mozart (with the Prague Chamber Orchestra -- I will now have to get the newer Scottish Chamber Orchestra recordings), and I rank his Brahms symphonies with the Scots (along with Günter Wand and the NDRS) as the finest "modern" recordings available (really, Mackerras' Brahms was the most "fun" I ever had with the music).

I also truly enjoy his Dvořák, and his live recording of "Má Vlast" with the Czechs on Supraphon is a MUST-OWN (in fact, I was positively stunned when I heard the audience applaud at the end, because I couldn't believe such a fine, perfect performance had been recorded live...).

Thanks for mentioning those fab recordings. I suspect all of his recorded performances will keep appreciating in value over the years. What a rare talent. TIM

Sir Charles has, according to my information, been suffering from cancer for the last several years. I was very puzzled when his recording of selections from Martinu's Juliette (a fabulous recording, by the way) was announced as his last with the Czech Philharmonic. It makes more sense now.
Sir Charles was scheduled to conduct two of the London "Proms" concerts (I believe #'s 16 & 19) in the next several weeks. The Proms have already started - I think they are on concert 6 or 7 by now.
By the way, speaking of the Proms, your readers might wish to know that the concerts are avalable for streaming from the BBC Radio 3 website for 7 days after the event. Already broadcast have been the opening concert of Mahler's Sym. #8 (Symphony of a Thousand), the Welsh National Opera concert performance of Die Meistersinger featuring Bryn Terfel as Sachs (how the Prommers were able to stand though that, I'll never know), a noontime (London time) concert of Schubert Songs and the Schumann Dicterliebe with tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Imogene Cooper, and a semi-staged performance of Simon Boccanegra, featuring Placido Domingo as the Doge. Maybe I should contribute an article on the highlights of the Proms, as it certainly offers more stimulating summer listening than anything I'm aware of in the local area.

Thanks for the comments and those great recommendations. And, by all means, please consider doing a guest blog post here on the Proms or any other cool listening ops you find. TIM

Actually, for mike, Sir Charles was set to conduct Proms 12 and 17 this season. The Proms have obtained substitute conductors, Vassily Sinaisky for Prom 12 and Douglas Boyd for Prom 17.

David Nice sent a brief appreciation of Sir Charles to The Guardian, posted here, where he alludes to Lady Mackerras mentioning that a year ago, Sir Charles was afflicted with lymphoma. David Nice has a full tribute on his blog here.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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