It is with a deep sense of loss that the Australia Council for the Arts notes the passing of Sir Charles Mackerras AC, CH, CBE, on Thursday 15 July 2010, aged 84.
Sir Charles worked with some of the world’s leading orchestras and became the first Australian chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony. He enjoyed a long successful international career as a conductor and broadcaster and is noted for his popularisation of the works of Czech composer Leoš Janacek.
In 1973, he conducted the first gala concert to open the Sydney Opera House.
‘Sir Charles Mackerras was rightly celebrated as one of the world’s greatest conductors’, said Kathy Keele, Chief Executive of the Australia Council. ‘His passing is a huge loss to the classical world.’
Sir Charles was born in New York in 1925 to Australian parents. He was raised in Australia and, after graduating from the Sydney Conservatorium, became principal oboist with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra from 1943-46.
As the recipient of a British Council Scholarship, he then studied at the Prague Academy of Music, Czechoslovakia, until 1948 when he debuted as an opera conductor with a production of Die Fledermaus. From 1954-56, Sir Charles was principal conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra and first conductor of the Hamburg Opera from 1966-69.
As Musical Director of both Sadler’s Wells (later the English National) Opera from 1970-1987 and the Welsh National Opera from 1987-91, he received particular acclaim for his Janacek productions. During this time he was guest conductor for the Vienna State Opera, Geneva Opera, Zurich Opera and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. From 1993-96, Sir Charles was principal guest conductor of the San Francisco Opera. In 2004 he became principal guest conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra and Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.
Sir Charles recorded output is acclaimed and extensive. He has recorded for Sony Classical, Decca, Pye, Hyperion and EMI. His prodigious discography includes nearly all of Janacek’s output, including an award series of opera recordings for Decca with the Vienna Philharmonic; the symphonies of Mozart for EMI; and works by Brahms, Handel, Purcell, Beethoven and Chopin.
Matthew Hindson, a composer and Chair of the Australia Council’s Music Board said, ‘Sir Charles Mackerras was not only an inspirational figure to young Australian conductors, but also a key figure in classical music throughout the world. He is responsible for bringing many of the works of important Czech composers like Janacek and Dvorak to wide public attention’.
Sir Charles was awarded the Gramophone Record of the Year in 1977 and was made Companion of the Order of Australia in 1977. In 2001, he received the Centenary Medal and in 2003 was made a Companion of Honour for the Queen’s Birthday Honours. He was presented with the Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal in 2005 and was the first recipient of the Queen’s Medal for Music.
In 2006, Sir Charles received the Gramophone Classic FM Lifetime Achievement Award, and two years later became the new Honorary President of the Edinburgh International Festival Society, the second person to hold this title after Yehudi Menuhin. The Edinburgh Festival has featured performances from Sir Charles for 6 decades since his first there in 1952. Earlier this year, he received the Artis Bohemiae Amici Award from the Czech Culture Ministry for promoting Czech music abroad, one of several awards he received for his service to Czech music.
The Australia Council extends our heartfelt sympathies to Sir Charles Mackerras’ family.