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Sir Charles Mackerras
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Biography
Sir Charles Mackerras

Conductor Sir Charles Mackerras was born in America but grew up from infancy in Australia. He is one of the world's most sought after, versatile and scholarly conductors, and has been equally acclaimed for his performances in the opera house and the concert hall.

After beginning his studies in Sydney, Sir Charles later spent a vital period in Prague, where he studied conducting with one of the great masters of the older European school, Vaclav Talich. His experience of Talich and the Czechoslovakian culture and people created a passion in him for Czech music that was to lead to his pioneering international work performing and preparing new editions of the music of Janacek.

In 1947 Sir Charles moved to the United Kingdom, where after a brief period as principal oboist with the BBC Scottish Orchestra he joined the Sadlers Wells Opera both as an oboist in the Orchestra and as a repetiteur for the company. After his year of study in Prague, he came to prominence as a conductor at the Sadlers Wells Opera Company. It was at this time that he first directed some brilliant orchestrations of his own for the ballet at Sadlers Wells, notably Pineapple Poll, based on works by Sullivan. Soon he was gaining high praise for the dramatic flair in his operatic interpretations, the crispness, clarity, and rhythm he obtained from the orchestra and chorus, and the combination of flexible accompanying and tight ensemble discipline he achieved between stage and pit. A major landmark was his initiation and conducting of a series of performances of Janacek's Katya Kabanova in 1951, the first in a lifetime's championship of the composer's operas, which were very little known outside Czechoslovakia at that time.

As early as the mid 1950s Sir Charles Mackerras was already building up a very wide and varied discography which has since become vast. His concert career now began to flourish as major symphony orchestras began to engage him regularly. In 1959 he made a now legendary recording of Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks using the original, massive instrumentation Handel had specified for the fireworks display in London in 1749 to celebrate the peace at Aix la Chapelle. It was the first time since then that the original forces of 26 oboes, 18 bassoons, 2 serpents, 9 horns, 9 trumpets, 3 sets of timpani and 6 side drums had been heard, and in order to ensure that all these players could be available at one time it was recorded one night from 11pm to 2am. It was an early example of the meticulous work Sir Charles has devoted to the research and realisation of the original intentions of many composers whose authentic works have sometimes been changed later by music publishers and new performance fashions.

During the 1960s Sir Charles became internationally in demand as an opera conductor, and in 1964 he made a very strong impression in his debut at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden conducting a revival of the recently premiered Katerina Ismailova by Shostakovitch, with whom he had discussed the score in detail. This was the beginning of an association with the Royal Opera that has flourished ever since, as with his relationship with the New York Metropolitan Opera that began soon after. In 1965 at Sadlers Wells he gave a radical performance of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro which prophetically pre-empted many musicians' later interest in re-evaluating Mozart performance style by researching original sources. Sir Charles's interpretation had more 18th Century style, clarity and fleetness and less 19th Century style, weight and leisure than was often heard. In the latter half of the decade he became First Conductor at the Hamburg Opera, frequently conducting top international guest singers.

For most of the 1970s Sir Charles Mackerras was the Music Director of the Sadlers Wells, later English National Opera. This was a watershed for the company and for opera in England. His directorship brought the company an international style and a new artistic and technical standard. During this time he prepared completely new performing editions of Janacek's operas, which became very popular through Sir Charles' many performances at the English National Opera. This led to a pioneering set of recordings of Janacek operas for Decca with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the world's very finest singers, bringing many awards and the highest plaudits to Sir Charles.

From 1987 to 1992 Sir Charles Mackerras was Music Director of the Welsh National Opera, with whom he gave internationally acclaimed performances. With the Welsh National Opera he embarked on more prize winning recordings, notably Britten’s Gloriana, a series of Delius recordings and works by Gilbert and Sullivan. Through the 1980s and 1990s he formed particularly close associations with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and San Francisco Opera, performing and recording a remarkable diversity of music. In 1997 he was appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, and in 1998 made an extremely successful debut at the Salzburg Festival with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. He is currently Principal Guest Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Music Director of the Orchestra of St Luke’s, New York and Conductor Emeritus of the Welsh National Opera. He will conduct Médée at the 2000 Salzburg Festival.

Sir Charles Mackerras has one of the largest and most diverse discographies in classical music. As well as the original Janacek recordings, his award winning and particularly highly acclaimed discs have included symphonies by Brahms, Mahler and Beethoven, ballets by Stravinsky, and operas by Beethoven, Britten, Dvorak, Donizetti and Mozart.

Sir Charles Mackerras wears his remarkable erudition lightly and is an effusive speaker and broadcaster on music, communicating his great love of the masterworks with an engaging combination of informality and insight.

©Jon Tolansky

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