Sir Charles Mackerras

The last meeting of the Society was a presentation by Anthony Powell of the conducting of Sir Charles Mackerras illustrated by extracts from some of his recordings.  Mackerras was born in Schenectady in USA to Australian parents but they returned to their home country when he was two to live in Sydney.

He was a precocious talent and wrote a piano concerto when he was 12.  His parents were not convinced a musical life would be a viable profession so sent him to The King’s School with its focus on sport and discipline hoping that he would pursue a different career.  It was not to be and at the age of 16 went to the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music where he studied oboe, piano and composition.

Vaclav Talich

At 19 he was the principal oboist with the ABC Sydney Orchestra.  A few years later he sailed for England and began his career at the Saddlers Wells Theatre.  He studied conducting with Vaclav Talich (pictured) in Prague and returned to resume his career at the English National Opera.

There then followed a distinguished career with a variety of famous orchestras including the BBC Concert Orchestra; Covent Garden; the Met and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.  He was the first non Briton to conduct the BBCSO at the Proms.

Tony selected a wide range of his conducting and started with a piece by Sir Arthur Sullivan followed by a piece by Delius: Paris: the song of a great city first performed in 1899 in Germany and this recording with the Liverpool Philharmonic.

Mackerras had a great attachment to Czech music – indeed he spoke the language fluently – and we heard the Symphonic poem: the Noonday Witch by Dvorak.  This was followed by an extract of the familiar Sinfonietta by Janacek.

The classics were not neglected and two movements from Mozart’s Symphony No. 32 in G major performed with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.  Then it was Beethoven’s seventh followed by Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5.  All these extracts illustrated the close attention to rhythm and pace which Mackerras had.  This was particularly illustrated by an extract from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, a piece of great energy and requiring great skill to keep the orchestra together.  This was an electrifying performance.

To record Handel’s Messiah using no less than 26 oboes were needed – which is what the composer required – meant it had to be done at night finishing in the small hours.  After the final scene of Janacek’s Jenufa we heard the final movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, again with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchesta.

The range of this conductor’s performances was well illustrated and the pieces carefully chosen to give good examples of his style and ability.  Sir Charles died in 2005.  He had received many honour including a CBE; Medal of Merit from Czech Republic and was made Honorary President of Edinburgh International Festival Society.


Next meeting on May 9th and is a member’s evening

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