R.I.P. Sir Charles Mackerras 11/17/1925 - 7/14/2010

Charles_MackerrasSir Charles Mackerras was one of the most respected conductors of the past half-century, hailed for his expertise in Czech music (especially the operas of Janáček), his long Gilbert & Sullivan experience, and his historically informed recordings of Handel, Mozart, Schubert, and Brahms. In 2000 I had the pleasure of interviewing him for the defunct CDNOW about his then-new recording of Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), done in connection with the film Mozart in Turkey and part of his series of Mozart's operas for the Telarc label. He was quite cheerful and down-to-earth, and quite the opposite of the stereotypical egotistical conductor. Here is that 2000 interview, somewhat longer than originally published. Outdated, yes, but his answers convey the flavor of his personality and interests and commitment.

I was just listening to your new Abduction from the Seraglio. Yelda Kodalli is quite a Constanza.

Sir Charles Mackerras: Well, it's a funny thing, the person who's supposed to be Spanish is Turkish, and the person who's supposed to be Turkish is English, and the person who's supposed to be English is Italian. So there you are, you've got a real cosmopolitan cast.

You performed the opera in Turkey. Did this stereotype-ridden work go over well there?

It did, I think. They were doing it within the framework of a general program of European views of Turkey in various ages. We didn't do it in the Seraglio when we performed it, it was in the courtyard outside it, but it was within the royal palace confines, so to speak [the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul]. It was very good performance, I must say, very interesting. I suspect most of the audience were tourists, because there was one evening where I think there was a whole party of German tourists, because they got all the jokes in the German dialogue, whereas other performances there hadn't been any laughs at the German jokes. But the Turkish cultural part of the government were most anxious that the whole idea of Europeans' views of Turkey and so on should be presented as well as possible, and of course Mozart's opera is arguably the finest work of that kind in existence.

You went to some trouble to make it authentic with the Turkish percussion.

We went to an instrument shop in Turkey and went through the instruments and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra actually bought a set of instruments. The instruments that they use in the modern military bands in Turkey are very similar to the "Janissary" music of the 18th century. The way the instruments are played and the size of the instruments and so on seem to be exactly the same as you see on old pictures of the 18th century and earlier, and the instruments on the recording are certainly absolutely authentic in sound and in size. We did the recording in an extremely unlikely place: Dundee in the middle of Scotland. And when Yelda and her husband came in and they heard the scene, they said, "That is exactly the right sound!" So everybody was pleased.

In terms of "authentic performance," you strike a bit of a compromise between modern and authentic instruments.

It depends. As far as the Scottish Chamber Orchestra is concerned, I have modern strings and woodwind, and the horns and trumpets and, when we have trombones, trombones are either natural horns and trumpets as they would be in Mozart's time, or Vienna horns when we are playing Brahms and later music. I've already discussed the percussion business. But even those who are playing the modern instruments -- especially the strings -- play with what you might call a period-orchestra style. Which means that the rhythm is a lot more transparent and has a lot more vitality to it, and the general texture of the orchestration is a lot more transparent.

As a conductor, you started out in opera, and it has always been important to you. Was there any experience in particular that led you to that interest?

I was always interested in opera, even before I heard a real opera, while I was in Australia. I played in symphony orchestras, but I'd still never seen an opera, as much as I adored all the records I had of Wagner and Mozart. But my first job which could be vaguely called conducting was in the Sadler's Wells Opera when I went to London after the war. That was really formative for me, because I became an oboist in the orchestra, playing second oboe, but I also did répétiteuring [rehearsing] and offstage conducting and I had quite a lot of lessons with one of the resident conductors, who helped me a great deal. I got to know a big operatic repertoire from first-hand experience. And then I had this year in Prague on a scholarship where I also worked a great deal on opera and saw a lot of opera and got to know the operas of Janáček. And then when I went back to London, I again got a job as an assistant conductor and répétiteur and so on. I had already quite a large number of operas under my belt, having conducted them, and I still hadn't conducted a Beethoven symphony. That came quite a lot later when I started to develop a big orchestral repertoire. So the first two or three years of my conducting existence were entirely opera.

When you were in Prague, you studied with Václav Talich.

Yes, I did. When I first intended to study with him, when I went there first, he was much too busy to bother with me, but he told me to come to all his rehearsals. So I went and studied in the Conservatory and the Academy with other people and came to a lot of Talich's rehearsals. But then the Communist coup overtook everybody and he was politically on the wrong side, you know, and he had to keep a rather low profile. And so his misfortune was in a way my good fortune, because I was able to get access to him in a way that I never did when he was working very hard. Before the Communist coup in February 1948, he was not only the director of the National Theater, and therefore continually conducting operas, but also had formed his own chamber orchestra, which was called the Czech Chamber Orchestra and became the Prague Chamber Orchestra later, and he was fairly regularly conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. So he was intensely busy, but that all changed when the Communists took over, because they knew that he was anti-Communist, and they didn't like him at all. He was pretty ill at the time when they relieved him of his three positions. He had cataracts in his eyes and he couldn't read properly. And so in a way that was another thing that was good for me. He enjoyed talking to me because he couldn't read, and so I used to spend entire days talking about music and analyzing compositions, and I really learned a hell of a lot from that.

What were some of the specific things you learned?

Well, how to prepare a work that the orchestra didn't know, or that one as a conductor had never done before, specific ways of learning which helped one to learn it. Also ways of rehearsing the orchestra, different ways of treating the orchestra if they were familiar with the piece we were playing or unfamiliar with it, sight-reading so to speak, and all sorts of various tips that he gave me which are too many to list. It is a bit difficult to say precisely what I learnt, but I drank in all his experience, because he played in the orchestra under [Arthur] Nikisch, so he spanned several generations.

When you recorded Dvořák's Slavonic Dances, certainly you had the rhythm down.

Oh, the recent recording of the Slavonic Dances, yeah. Well, his recordings of those dances are for me what you might call definitive. I find them by far the best of all the recordings there are of the Slavonic Dances. I'm talking about the one that he made after the war. The ones he did in London before the war are also marvelous, but it's a little bit difficult to tell from the not-very-good sound just how good they were.

Is the relative dearth of contemporary composers in your discography a matter of your personal taste or of record company choices?

A bit of both. I can't say that I'm not interested in contemporary music, but for me, I'm more interested in the 20th century repertoire sort of just post-war, like Britten and Shostakovich. That kind of composer interests me more than the really contemporary ones. And after all, in the 20th century there were so many marvelous and interesting composers, quite apart from Janáček and Martinů, which I so to speak specialize in, all the others like Bartók and Hindemith and Stravinsky and so on, all of which I do conduct with a great deal of pleasure. As I say, I have not actually had particularly the chance to conduct actual contemporary music because I'm not asked to do it so much, and certainly with regard to the recordings they've never asked me to. It's becoming rather a specialist activity, you know, contemporary music. It does require a completely different technique, conducting 20th century music that's just post-Second World War. I would say that the nearest approach to real contemporary music that I've ever conducted was the Elliott Carter Piano Concerto, which is hardly contemporary any more. [chuckles]

I'm surprised you mention Carter, because I see hardly any American composers in your discography.

Well, I did one LP of Copland, a sort of popular one with El Salon Mexico in it, with the Philharmonia. But it hasn't been reissued on CD -- one never knows the reason for that, you know. What else I have conducted by American composers? Well, the Carter Piano Concerto, and I have conducted that wonderful Symphonic Suite from West Side Story of Bernstein. Not much else I fear. Oh, the Roy Harris Fifth Symphony. Good.

It is always difficult, with the way record companies put things in and out of print, to get a handle on what people have done.

Yes, that's true. I'm always quite surprised that certain things that I've done years and years and years ago seem worthy of being put onto CD, and others they've just forgotten about. But of course, the thing with me is that I've been known as a specialist in Janáček and Martinů particularly, and of course for Mozart and Baroque music and Handel. They have re-released a lot of those things, whereas the things for which I am not especially known have not been re-released. For instance, I've done the Sibelius Second Symphony twice and that's never been re-released [actually one has; see below]. I don't know why; they are both very good recordings, they got good reviews when they were first brought out. But I don't know the reason for these things.

I find it sad that I haven't recorded more Wagner, because I really would like to. The same as I would have liked to have done more Strauss than just the three famous tone poems. I have done one recording of Götterdämmerung with the LPO, with a big selections of Götterdämmerung with Rita Hunter and Alberto Remedios. That was made a long time ago, in the days when Alberto Remedios and Rita Hunter were the big stars of the English National Opera, but this was a separate recording in which they sang in German. At the National Opera they sang the Ring always in English, but this recording was done in German.

I've heard that there has been some difficulty in getting Decca to issue all of the Janáček operas.

The Adventures of Mr. Brouček, or Mr. Brouček's Excursions, whatever you might call it, is an extremely expensive opera, and I can't get anybody to do it. It's double the length of any other Janáček opera. I have always had an ambition to record it, and nobody -- not the Czechs, not Decca -- will record it. It's quite difficult to get it put on even in Prague, even in Czechoslovakia. I was asked once which opera I would like to conduct at the National Theater in Prague and I immediately said Brouček, and they said, "Well, no, not that one; anything else, but not that." But that's the one I want to do, because I've done all the others. It's a huge cast, and it's got a lot of chorus in it, and it's difficult to play, and it's got all sorts of things against it. [Sadly, he never did get to record it.]

But I tell you one thing I am doing which is going to be extremely interesting, which is Janáček's early opera called Šárka, we're doing that with the Czech Philharmonic and Supraphon this summer. It's a one-CD work, it's not very long, and it's within the bounds of what they can afford. But that's going to be very interesting, because there is no other recording of it except a very, very old historical one conducted by Janáček's pupil Břetislav Bakala which is a fine performance but is in very, very, very old-fashioned sound. So we expect great things of this Šárka. It's a marvelous work that has been virtually completely forgotten. And I'm about to do some more Dvořák with the Czech Philharmonic and Supraphon. They're [also] going to release Smetana's Ma Vlast with the Czech Philharmonic.

Your entry in Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians shows that you studied composition at New South Wales Conservatory. Have you done any composing?

Well, very little. I studied composition with a rather academic old gentleman called Dr. Bainton in Sydney. He was an Englishman, a really academic kind of man, although the music that he wrote himself was highly romantic, it was rather strange, it was rather like Delius, a lot of his music. I used to compose music for films when I was a kid, a teenager, and I composed a ballet when I was a young man, but I really decided that I was a typical example of Kapellmeistermusik. The music was alright, but it was just like second-rate Walton, Bartók, Hindemith, Shostakovich, Britten, you name it, it was like that. I've done quite a lot of arranging, like my ballets Pineapple Poll [a Gilbert & Sullivan suite] and The Lady and the Fool [a Verdi suite], I'm quite clever at orchestration, but I don't think I'm very talented at composition so I leave that others. I prefer to interpret the works of the masters as well as I can rather than inflict my own music upon the public.

A Few Recommended Recordings by Sir Charles Mackerras:

Leos Janáček: Operas [Kát'a Kabanová; The Cunning Little Vixen; From the House of the Dead; Jenufa; The Makropulos Affair; Sinfonietta; Taras Bulba; Jealousy]

If you don't want to spring for the whole set (though it's quite economical for nine CDs), at least get
Janáček: Jenufa: Elisabeth Söderström/Wieslaw Ochman/Peter Dvorsky/Eva Randová /Lucia Popp/Vienna State Opera Chorus/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (Decca)

Handel: Water Music: Orchestra of St. Luke's

Janáček: Šárka: Eva Urbanová/Peter Straka/Ivan Kusnjer/Jaroslave Březina/Prague Philharmonic Choir/Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (Supraphon)

Antonín Dvořák: Slavonic Dances: Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (Supraphon)

Dvořák: Rusalka: Renée Fleming/Ben Heppner/Kühn Mixed Choir/Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (London)

Bedrich Smetana: Má vlast (My Fatherland): Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (Supraphon)

Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 2; The Swan of Tuonela: London Symphony Orchestra

Wolfgang Mozart: Complete Symphonies: Prague Chamber Orchestra (Telarc)

Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 22 & 27: Alfred Brendel/Scottish Chamber Orchestra (Philips)

Franz Schubert: Symphony No. 9 in C major "The Great": Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (Virgin Veritas) - Steve Holtje


Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who splits his time between editing Culturecatch.com, working at the Williamsburg record store Sound Fix, and editing cognitive neuroscience books for Oxford University Press. No prizes for guessing which pays best.

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