Sir Charles Mackerras – Sydney Symphony Orchestra

On Friday night to hear the SSO, conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras.

After a sleepless night on Thursday followed by a torrid day in court I had tried to snatch an hour’s nap at home before going back into town, but I was still too wound-up to sleep. Consequently, I wasn’t in my best listening condition.  This impaired my capacity to respond to the first half, which was the in parts rather sombre Dvořák 7th Symphony. 

After interval and a drink, I perked up for Vltava from Ma Vlast and the Janáček Sinfonietta. I wondered if it was just the drink that did it, but I heard my neighbours (and I doubt that they had a drink) also saying that they enjoyed the second half more – perhaps because the pieces are really party pieces for Mackerras.

The concert was almost full. Despite an explicit request (because a recording was being made) not to applaud between movements, there was still a smattering in the breaks in the Dvořák from (mostly) the cheaper seats.  To be fair, some of these people would have been non-English-speaking visitors – so I suppose I have to take it as a pay-off for the inbuilt subsidy that tourism provides.

As is well-known, Mackerras belongs to one of those amazing families which hold well to one day being identified as members of an Australian intellectual or cultural aristocracy.  In his own generation, quite a lot of this must be put down to the influence of his mother, Catherine, a descendant of Isaac Nathan and Sir Normand MacLaurin (a surgeon, company director and one-time chancellor of Sydney University). Catherine converted to Catholicism in the 1920s. 

I mention the conversion, which is said to have caused something of a rift in the family (Mackerras pere came from more Scottish enlightenment stock) because this seems, at least in part, to have been responsible for the political direction taken by Sir Charles’s younger brothers Neil (google hits refer to his involvement with the DLP, though my recollection is that he was also involved in Aboriginal rights) and Malcolm, the psephologist, who also started on the conservative side of politics. 

Sir Charles’ brother, Alastair, now deceased, was the head of Sydney Grammar (the school run by Catholics for the benefit of Jews and Asians, to trot out an old line), and that school’s undeniable excellence in music owes much to his enthusiasm and support.  There is to me some irony in the fact that Sir Charles suffered a major falling out with Benjamin Britten in the 1950s after some snide remark made by the young (and reputedly rather abrasive, though this may be an English stereotype about brash colonials) Sir Charles about Britten’s enthusiasm for the lads got back to Britten.  Though married briefly around about the time he became headmaster, Alastair was an avuncular character.  Not that I am saying that Alastair shared Britten’s predilections (whatever they were), but he was certainly something of a king of the kids.  Alastair was famous for his habit of handing out chocolate frogs to any boy whose name he could not remember.  As he reputedly had a very good memory, this does not seem to have led to as many pimples as you might expect.

Another brother, Colin, is a sinologist who early in his career published quite a bit on Chinese Opera. 

4 Responses to “Sir Charles Mackerras – Sydney Symphony Orchestra”

  1. J. Vaughan Says:

    Sir Charles has been my favourite conductor for many years, my interest in his work having begun with his Handel in the late 1960’s. In more recent years, I have been largely _MOST_ pleased with his Elgar, and have been further pleased with his Mahler among others (I wish he had recorded/would record more R. Strauss).

    I was unaware of his falling-out with Britten in the 1950’s, and only recently learned that he had, in fact, been later associated with him, one milestone having been conducting the world premiere of _Noye’s_ _Fludde_ (I wish he had conducted for the recording, though Mr. Del Mar did an excellent job). Do we know what brought about their reconciliation?

    J. V.

  2. marcellous Says:

    I’ve done a little googling and it seems that the premiere of Noyes Fludde (in 1958) was the occasion of the falling out, as it was then when Mackerras made the remarks which so incensed Britten (see this article on the occasion of Mackerras’s 80th birthday). I had inferred that any reconciliation occurred long after.

    In their 1953 revue, “Airs on a Shoe String,” Flanders and Swann included what Flanders maintained was an affectionate tribute to Britten called “A Guide to Britten” whch included the following lines:

    (of Billy Budd)

    “With floggings and hangings, and pitch and toss
    And nothing but men – ooh it made Joan Cross”


    (of The Beggar’s Opera)

    “Revived by our hero, after all these years
    It made bundles for Britten and piles for Pears.”

    Flanders professed to be surprised that Britten was offended by it. I am not so surprised, even though the final couplet was:

    “So rule Britannia! While Britten rules the waves
    All the music loving public are his slaves.”

    Obviously Britten was defensive about references either to his homosexuality or his enthusiasm for children, and perhaps rightly so, both because of the prevailing moral climate and also because there was more going on on the pedophilic front than he cared to acknowledge.

    You can read a particularly vitriolic diatribe here which, whatever the truth or otherwise of its contents, gives a good idea of what Britten was up against. To discount this as a diatribe is not to say that everything in it is false, and of course its incidental account of prevailing social sentiments amongst some of Britten’s contemporaries and musical rivals has a truth of its own in any event. It is also true that one should no more assume that, as a gifted composer, Britten was also a nice man than one need believe that of, say, Wagner.

  3. Adrian Says:

    I met Alastair a couple of times, when I was a kid and my brothers were in high school. He still remembered my name several years later, when I was about to commence high school; by this stage he’d already been in retirement for several years.

    One uncharitable tradition has it that Charles’ conducting is considerably tighter than Malcolm’s psephology…

  4. marcellous Says:

    I met Alastair a few times too, though over a longer period, so I’m not sure, for instance, if he connected me at 17 with me approaching 40. I thought he was a lovely man, though I believe he mellowed over time (as so many of us do).

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