September 2005


The interpreter

By Stephen Fay
The interpreter
If alive, will play. Charles MacKarras and the quest for authenticity

Sir Neville Cardus, the legendary cricket writer and music critic, chose to spend the World War II years in Sydney rather than London. Young Australian musicians would seek him out at his home in Kings Cross and ask if he thought they would be able to make a career in Europe when the war was over. One young oboist said that what he wanted most was to become an opera conductor. “Absolutely hopeless,” said Cardus. “Don’t dream of going abroad.”

The aspiring conductor, who ignored Cardus’s advice, was Charles Mackerras. Sixty years later Mackerras, now Sir Charles, has few rivals as an interpreter of Handel and Mozart. His passion for period instruments and original scores inspired a great musical fashion. As a student in Prague he discovered the operas of Leos Janá?cek, the magnificent but then neglected Czech composer. “People didn’t need me to tell them that Mozart and Handel were great composers. Janá?cek did.”

His achievement as an opera and orchestral conductor has been recognised by the establishment in England, where the Queen made him a Companion of Honour, and in Australia, where he is a member of the Order of Australia. Musicians refer to him fondly as ‘The Wizard of Oz’. When I suggest that he is a plausible candidate for the title of Greatest Living Australian he modestly demurs, but he seems pleased by the idea, like a man who has not, perhaps, received the recognition he deserves.

When he was five, in 1930, Mackerras watched the meeting of the two arches of the Sydney Harbour Bridge from the family house in Vaucluse. That makes him 80 this year. His birthday will be celebrated on November 17. He will be working, of course. He cannot stop. On that night he will be in the pit at the Royal Opera House, London, conducting a performance of Verdi’s A Masked Ball. His wife Judy says he is happy only when he is standing in front of an orchestra.

Mackerras’s reputation is still growing, though it has taken the Vienna Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic orchestras some time to catch on. After his Berlin debut a couple of years ago, one review was headlined: “Triumph dem alten Mannes.” The old man’s triumphs include a CD of Mozart’s The Magic Flute that is judged by some reviewers to be the best ever. He finds it difficult to say no. Although the flight to Australia is a burden, if he were asked to conduct the first concert in the new interior of the Sydney Opera House he would want to say yes. He conducted the first performance there in 1973.

Yet he is no longer a familiar figure in the place where he grew up. Nancy Phelan, his biographer, says that to the British his accent is almost “Ocker”, yet in his own country his voice is described as “plummy British”. “He is too cosmopolitan,” she writes, “to belong completely anywhere.”

Mackerras is principal guest conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra, which rehearses in a converted church in south London. When I join them there, he shows me where to sit but says he is tired after a busy day: “No conversation today.” After the rehearsal, invigorated by music-making, he eats the sandwiches from the lunchbox prepared by Judy and chatters away, sounding to me more Ocker than English. Approaching 80, he says, “sometimes you feel marvellous, sometimes you don’t.” But still his agent juggles his engagements to fit in as many as possible. He has already committed himself to concerts in Rome in 2008. When he makes an agreement to play with an orchestra, he always adds: “If alive.”

This morning his tiredness leaves him as soon as he steps up to the conductor’s podium. He shakes hands with the leader of the orchestra, James Clark, and they start promptly at 10.30. The floor is littered with cases for double basses, in various pastel shades. Dress is casual. They are working on Elgar’s Second Symphony, which requires a big orchestra. He uses a baton for this but not for the Mozart which follows, and which requires fewer players.

Mackerras conducts a rehearsal as if he is editing prose, seeking out colour and vitality, getting the pace right, highlighting phrases, emphasising themes. “Make sure we hear the harp in the last bar,” he says. The musicians mark their scores. He stops and confers with the leader. What about? “Pace, speed,” says Clark. “He talks more than some conductors who know what they want and don’t say anything. He doesn’t tell. He consults.” Clark praises Mackerras’s energy and his fidelity to the composer’s score. The Elgar symphony is such a complicated work that some conductors might be tempted to edit it. Not Mackerras. “He wants us to play all the notes Elgar wrote. In this piece he wrote a lot of notes.”

Mackerras is also working at Glyndebourne, the opera house in the Sussex countryside. Here he conducts the Orchestra for the Age of Enlightenment in The Magic Flute. “Period orchestras such as this do a great deal of talking,” he says. But although the musicians have their own strongly held opinions, in the end they defer to him. “He is clear what he wants,” says Susan Sheppard, who plays the viola. “He knows the music inside out and backwards. He’s dependable and reliable, and you start feeling very confident in him. If he feels something is important, we’ll go along with it.” Tony Robson, one of the oboists, detects a tendency to stubbornness but puts up with it. “He’s very good at dangerous corners in the music. That’s when you’re glad to have him.”

He lives in a fine terrace of Georgian houses in St John’s Wood, just round the corner from Lord’s cricket ground. (He does not care for cricket.) A piano sits in the plainly decorated living room. More attention is paid to interior decoration in the narrow study, and in the library in the basement, where he keeps a remarkable collection of musical scores and orchestral parts. Cleverly designed shelves double the space available for his extensive array of CDs. A specially made chair enables him to relax and study a score at the same time. His secretary occupies a small desk by the door leading out to the garden. Mackerras delights in scouring duty-free shops on his travels, looking for the latest electronic gadgets. It is curious, then, that his collection does not include something as practical as email. He still lives in the era of the fax.

Judy is attentive and obliging, providing tea and biscuits, reminding him of appointments he needs to keep. When they married, Mackerras’s mother said: “I do hope he won’t be unfaithful to her.” That was 58 years ago, so the marriage must be strong. Both like company. Although he could not be described as an avid party-goer, Mackerras enjoys a couple of drinks when he goes out.

On the podium he looks imposing in his white tie and tails. Off-stage he is a stocky man battling with his weight – no cow’s-milk products, please. His hair has thinned and is now more pale ginger than red, but there is enough of it to make him look younger than his age. Unlike conductors who behave like a prima donna and expect to be called “maestro”, Mackerras is a conversationalist, anxious to unravel the arcane business of conducting an orchestra. He obviously likes the role of teacher and is remarkably patient with musical illiterates. He plays the same teaching role in rehearsals too, but there the response is different. Woe betides any player who doesn’t attend class.

Mackerras is an Australian who lives in London and was born in the US – in Schenectady, New York. His father Alan Mackerras, an electrical engineer, was then doing postgraduate work at General Electric. On returning to Sydney he worked on the electricity supply for the city and then the state, observing the stars, sailing in the harbour. Charles’s mother Catherine was distantly related to Isaac Nathan, who is sometimes referred to as the father of Australian music. Nathan died in 1864, run down by Sydney’s first horse-drawn tram. The family was comfortably off.

Well-informed Australians, on hearing that your subject is Mackerras, are likely to ask: “Which one?” Charles is one of five brothers and two sisters who grew up in Turramurra, where the family moved after the Harbour Bridge opened up Sydney’s North Shore. Alastair Mackerras became head-master of Sydney Grammar School, famous for his love of music and his contempt for sport. Malcolm is a professor of politics in Canberra, and Colin a highly regarded Sinologist in Brisbane. Neil, a solicitor, became expert and ardent on the subject of Aboriginal legal rights. Elizabeth is the mother of Alex Briger, a talented young conductor. Joan was a violinist who has two musical sons.

The taste for music was encouraged in them by their mother. The ability to concentrate and to work hard came from their father. Charles’s music lessons started when he was six; at seven he was carried away by a touring production of Carmen; at eight he was setting poems to music. At ten the prodigy had decided to become a conductor. He was utterly obsessed by music, and talked of little else, even when sailing in his father’s boat. He was sent to Sydney Grammar School, which he enjoyed because it was only ten minutes’ walk from the Conservatorium of Music, where he composed, conducted and studied the oboe. So absorbed was he by life at the Con that his parents decided to concentrate his mind on his education by sending him, as a boarder, to The King’s School in Parramatta. “I hated it and I ran away,” he says. His father, like most middle-class Australians, thought that music was not a proper job. He wanted Charles to get a qualification, as a lawyer perhaps, just in case. But Charles was a lot more wilful than his father.

At 16 he started playing the oboe in Sydney theatre and radio orchestras. His ear was so acute that he could transcribe a record or a broadcast into a written score. Already he had started on what Nancy Phelan calls “his lifelong pattern of doing too much at once”. As there was a war on, and so many musicians were in the services, plenty of orchestral work was available. What irked him was that there were no good conductors to learn from. To call Sir Bernard Heinze the best Australian conductor, as he did, was faint praise. “He had the gift of the gab or, as the hardened players used to say, ‘the right line of bullshit’. You could catch him out in all sorts of ways, but the performances went with great dash.”

At 20 he went to Brisbane to play under Sir Malcolm Sargeant. He wanted to go there because a local musicologist named Dr Daly Scarlett had a facsimile of the autograph copy of Handel’s Messiah. Mackerras was contemptuous of modern editions and anxious to find out what the score really said. After 1945 conductors from Europe and the US reappeared in Australia. He played under Sargeant and Eugene Goossens, but the first one who bowled him over was Eugene Ormandy from Philadelphia. Pre-war members of the Sydney and Melbourne orchestras were so keen to play under Ormandy that some were still in uniform. “When he conducted, you couldn’t believe you were listening to the Sydney Symphony,” says Mackerras.

Ignoring Cardus’s advice, Mackerras left Sydney as soon as he was free to travel. He landed in Tilbury in March 1947, and quickly discovered that Cardus was not altogether wrong. All the conductors he wanted to learn from were too busy to teach; he became resigned to playing the oboe in Sadler’s Wells touring orchestra. A chance meeting in a South Kensington restaurant changed his life. A Czech, who noticed Mackerras was reading a score by Antonin Dvo?rák, a fellow country-man, got into conversation with him. When the Czech learned that Mackerras was a frustrated would-be conductor, he told him of a scholarship to study in Czechoslovakia. Why not apply to study conducting?

Within months Mackerras was in Prague. He learned the language, sat at the feet of Vaclav Talich, a distinguished conductor, and discovered Janá?cek. When he returned to Sadler’s Wells he had a few lessons “in stick wagging” and then they let him loose on Gilbert and Sullivan, and in 1951 he conducted the British premiere of Janá?cek’s Katya Kabanova. He was the only conductor in London who knew the score. He then produced playable scores, popularising works such as Jenufa and Katya, which are now staples in the operatic repertoire.

“I’m a mixture of stubbornness and enthusiasm,” he says. During the next 15 years he exhibited both in his search for authenticity in performances of Mozart and Handel. Both qualities were especially useful when he organised a recording of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks in the version used on the first night in 1749, and not played since. This may be because the piece requires 26 oboes, 14 bassoons, four contra-bassoons, nine horns, nine trumpets, six side drums, three pairs of timpani and two serpents.

In the name of authenticity, Mackerras insisted on a form of musical embellishment known as appoggiatura – the use of ornament to impart brilliance or sadness to a particular passage. Whether these notes actually appeared in the score was not significant. Mackerras’s research convinced him that decorative appoggiaturas were what Mozart had wanted. His enthusiasm may have got the better of him. At a famous performance of The Marriage of Figaro at Sadler’s Wells in 1964, there were appoggiaturas by the shovelful. He was already the most scholarly, and controversial, of conductors. Even now, Mackerras refuses to perform Mozart’s late piano concertos with pianists who read the score literally and won’t add the ornamentation.

A series of operatic posts followed: in Hamburg, at the English National Opera, where he first conducted Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle, and then at the Welsh National Opera. He returned to Sydney, first conducting for the ABC and then, in the early 1980s, as chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Only the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden remained lukewarm towards him. He says he is sure they dismissed him as a “brash Aussie”. “The reason I didn’t get to Covent Garden as soon as I should have was because Sir David Webster [the administrator until 1970] did not think I was a gentleman.” It was, he thinks, the only time being Australian affected his career.

The mystery is why it should be that two men conducting the same music with the same orchestra make different sounds. “After 80 years of my life I still don’t know the answer,” he says. He singles out a few greats: Wilhelm Furtwängler – for him, the best – Leopold Stokowski, Toscanini. “You can tell it’s them from their particular sound, which they don’t get from the orchestra by talking.”

This is a hard subject for a conductor who would rather be judged by his performances than by his ability to talk about them. But Mackerras is game, and has a try. Despite some hearing loss in his seventies he still has an acute ear. “I must have, because one of the good things about my conducting – so people say – is that the music is well-balanced. You can hear the main theme when necessary, and you can hear all the subsidiary themes.”

In Czechoslovakia he learned from Talich that a conductor should combine overbearing conceit and shyness. “We need dual personalities – terribly humble in the face of great music and full of self-confidence while we’re doing it. But being a good musician is not the only thing that’s required. It’s also the way you approach an orchestra. The German word for it is Ausstrahlung.” The word means “emanation”, or the force of a personality. Musicians must trust the conductor to guide them through difficult passages, and be willing to respond to the emotional temperature he creates. But how does he create this? He admits he is not sure: “The movements a conductor makes come from a subconscious reaction to the music, which is transmitted to the orchestra.”

The conductor must also acquire professional skills, such as helping the orchestra play together. For example, because brass instruments are heavy, they tend to come in a fraction behind the string instruments. It is no use, he says, telling the players not to be late. They will reply that it is the conductor’s job to get them in on time, not theirs. “It’s a flick of the wrist in their direction,” he says. “I do it instinctively now.” The conductor’s baton is not actually necessary, especially with small orchestras, and he uses one only when he has to. In The Magic Flute he held a baton in his right hand to tick off the beat precisely, while his left hand indicated expression to the players and brought in the singers on cue. “Some conductors beat with both hands, and that’s a very bad sign.”

Mackerras’s stick technique is curtailed by a bad injury that prevents him lifting his right arm above shoulder height. During a performance of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger 11 years ago, he ruptured a tendon in his right shoulder. Surgeons replaced the snapped tendon. “If I hadn’t been a conductor they would not have bothered.” He was forced, for the first time in his life, to take a few months off, and he hated it.

Musicians who admire him tolerate his didacticism and the perfectionism. After the Philharmonia rehearsal, he said sweetly: “Most orchestras don’t like conductors, but this orchestra is terribly nice to me.” He senses a recent change of mood among orchestral players. “Many of the orchestras that once were rude are much nicer now, partly because they are starting to realise that conductors are not their enemy.”

When I first met him, almost 20 years ago, he mentioned that he had just returned from Vienna, where he had conducted the legendary Vienna Philharmonic. When I asked how they performed for him, he replied that they gave as much as they cared to. Now, he says, orchestras are less dictatorial than they used to be. The Berlin Philharmonic, once a quintessential German orchestra, is more cosmopolitan these days, though not as much so as the British orchestras. The French still prefer to do it their way. A couple of American orchestras retain a reputation for destroying conductors. When he last conducted Australian orchestras in September 2003 he thought the Sydney Symphony had the immediate slickness and accuracy of an American orchestra, and that the Melbourne Symphony had the depth of sound of a European orchestra. A good conductor, he adds, can make his own sound with both American and European-style orchestras.

His uncompromising nature does not endear him to all his fellow musicians. He lectures orchestras, which is not always to their taste. Nancy Phelan reels off a string of adjectives to describe him at work – abrasive, opinionated, impatient, tactless. He would plead guilty to all, although he says the abuse is never personal. Sometimes, however, it cannot fail to be. Ian Bostridge, a brilliant English tenor, is unlikely to forget his experience with Mackerras. Following a number of mishaps in rehearsal, Mackerras barked: “Do you read music, Mr Bostridge?”

The group he is rudest about is not musicians but opera directors. He accuses many of them of making the music fit their ideas, rather than the other way round. He thinks most opera productions are either too conventional (and boring) or too outrageous (and mock the music). “I’m a terrible old fogey about opera productions,” he says. What he does like is surtitles, because he believes all composers want the audience to understand what is being sung. If that means translating it into English, fine. If surtitles can do the job, even better.

After a fall in June 2005 at his holiday home on the island of Elba, off the Tuscan coast, he had to withdraw from a couple of performances at Glyndebourne. Immediately he was back on the podium again at a wildly popular Gilbert and Sullivan promenade concert. Then he disappeared to Edinburgh for concerts and recording sessions. Though he tires more quickly now, he points out that conductors tend to be long-lived. Furtwängler and the great German-Austrian maestros, such as Karl Böhm and Otto Klemperer, were able to keep orchestras together with an imprecise beat and small hand movements when they were much older than Mackerras is now. They had immense Ausstrahlung. He sees them as an example.

Although he is greatly honoured in the business, his reputation is still not as high as theirs. Nor is he quite a great musical celebrity of today, in the way of Sir Simon Rattle. Perhaps Mackerras’s rejection of the maestro mentality explains why. Tony Robson, the oboist, calls him a great world conductor in the old-fashioned style, a Sir Thomas Beecham figure, rather than a creature of record-company hype. Certainly no one recognises him when he travels second-class on the train to Lewes, on the way to Glyndebourne. There are no gossip column paragraphs, no extravagant parties, no flash cars, no white fur coats for mistresses, no retreat into the seclusion of his ego. Maybe his impatience with all this reveals the Ocker in him. To appreciate the man, you have to listen to the music.

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