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.
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.
THE next meeting of the Society will be tonight, Monday, 18th April starting at 7:30 usual place. See the ‘Find us’ tab on the front page for a map or details if this will be your first visit. The presentation will be by Anthony Powell – no stranger to the Society – who will be taking about the conductor Sir Charles Mackerras and illustrating his talk with examples of his conducting.
Mackerras was one of the great polymath conductors of the 20th century, with interests that ranged from the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan to the high opera of Wagner and Strauss. His rigour and empathy with both music and musicians, as well as his intellectual curiosity, earned acclaim and respect from across the musical world. Any performance directed by Mackerras – particularly one featuring Janacek – bore the imprimatur of unsurpassed authority.
In the 1960s he was at the forefront of the period instrument movement, uncovering the original intentions of composers such as Handel, Mozart and Beethoven, and bringing to audiences some of the first “authentic” performances to be heard in Britain. Of particular note was a production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro at Sadler’s Wells in 1965 in which he controversially – and to some ridicule – reinstated the appoggiaturas and other ornamentation that would have been used in the 18th century.
Our view of a piece of music can sometimes be clouded by our belief of when it was composed. Somehow, we expect music in the nineteenth century to be romantic and in the twentieth, modern. So if we hear a piece that seems ‘out of its time’ we might in some way find it hard to accept. It was these reflections which led Anthony Powell last night to present a programme of music which was all composed at broadly the same time. What was striking was how different and varied the pieces were: if asked one might have thought half a century spanned their compositions when in fact it was around a decade. Truly, a dance to the music of (short) time.
He started with the overture to Jenufa by Janacek composed in 1894. Janacek was rarely heard until well into this century but is now a regular fixture in concert halls and his operas, such as The Cunning Little Vixen are frequently heard. He followed that up by an extract of the Sinfonietta arguably the most familiar of his works.
We then heard some Elgar who’s Symphonic Study, Falstaff was written only a few years after Janacek’s yet sounded an age apart. Other pieces included the Claude Debussy’s tonal work La Mer written a year or two after Elgar yet sounding completely different.
Another contrast were two extracts from Symphoniesno 3 and 5 by Nielsen. Nielsen is being heard more and more now and his symphonic works at least get performed. Anthony contrasted this with extracts from Mahler and in particular his Symphonyno 1 written two decades earlier but sounding from an altogether different age.
A fascinating programme which illustrated well the variety of musical styles which coexisted in just over a decade.
The next meeting is based on the saxophone as an orchestral instrument and is on November 17. If you weren’t at last nights meeting then don’t forget to bring along your favourite piece (lasting less than 10 minutes) for the Members’ evening on December 1st.