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SIR CHARLES MACKERRAS: ARTIST PROFILE - Synopsis of the interview:
Growing up in Australia, Mackerras talks about his musical family; they 'adored' and knew a lot about music, admired opera and chamber music, and listened to gramophone records of major works when he was a child.
The flute was his first instrument of choice, but just before the war, after reading in the newspapers of a shortage of oboe, bassoon and horn players in Australia, decided to learn the oboe. Even though still young, he wanted to be a conductor, and saw learning the oboe as a quicker way of getting into an orchestra, and gaining the orchestral experience that a conductor requires.
During the war, many musicians were conscripted, but Mackerras was underage, and this created a window of opportunity for him. Freelance oboe work was plentiful, and he became a 'professional' musician whilst still at school.
He studied conducting, composition and harmony at the New South Wales Conservatorium in Sydney, Australia. During this time, his oboe teacher left, and Mackerras replaced him as Professor of Oboe.
After graduating, he played with the ABC Radio Orchestra, which later became the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and he also joined the Colgate / Palmolive Commercial Radio Unit, playing jazz and light opera arrangements. Mackerras arranged music for the group, and the repertoire even included the odd Puccini aria!
When the war ended he decided to go overseas. Whilst many of his friends went to America, others, including himself, chose England.
HIS TIME IN ENGLAND
His priority upon arrival in England was to meet the oboists in all the major orchestras. He played with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, doubling on 2nd oboe for Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, recalling that it was conducted 'not very well' by Sir Thomas Beecham. He also joined the Sadler's Wells Opera Orchestra on tour, later becoming conductor and director of this group.
Considered by many to be one of the foremost authorities on the performance of Czech music, Mackerras recalls the incident that ultimately helped him cultivate this love. In 1947 whilst studying a Dvorák score on a train journey, he met a Czechoslovakian man who told him of a music scholarship in Prague. After applying and being successful, he moved to Prague experiencing a 'feast' of Czech music.
For some time after the war, Czech audiences did not want to hear German, Russian, Austrian or Italian music, so concert organisers drew heavily on the music of their own country. This meant that Mackerras heard and played the music of Dvorák, Smetana, Suk and Jánacek on a daily basis.
The influence of Czech music is evident from this point on, his career having an 'accent on Czech music', in particular on the operas of Jánacek. During this time, he liaised with the prominent Czech conductor Václav Talich, who, although too busy to take him on as his pupil, invited him to watch his chamber orchestra and Czech Philharmonic rehearsals.
Mackerras has conducted many of Jánacek's operas, most of which have been translated into English. Mackerras discusses some of the difficulties in translating Czech librettos to English. He also describes Jánacek's 'very badly' written scores: running ink; scratched out corrections; and his own unique hand-drawn staves. In the past, this had posed many problems for performers and conductors alike, so Mackerras decided 'to put some of the operas right'. He worked on and produced the operas Kát'a Kabanová (1919-21), The Makropulos Affair (1923-25), and his final, but incomplete opera, From the House of the Dead (1927-28).
ON ORCHESTRAS OF TODAY
Mackerras suggests that many orchestras have lost their identity, and there is little to differentiate between them in a cultural sense; Russian, French, Italian and English orchestras all sound similar, but Mackerras feels that Czech orchestras have retained their characteristic sound, particularly in the string and wind sections.
ON CONDUCTORS OF TODAY
Mackerras believes that many younger generation conductors lack experience, and place unrealistic demands on orchestra members. He feels he is the last of the 'old school' conductors, having played in an orchestra for many years, and having been a backstage conductor and a repetiteur. He gives one final word of advice on conducting - anyone can do a good performance "…if you launch yourself, and your personality upon that orchestra…"