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Sir Charles Mackerras
Sir Charles Mackerras
(Z Chrapek)

Sir Charles Mackerras, noted for his thoughtful, lucid interpretations of Baroque and Classical-era music, died today (15 July 2010). He was 84.

Alan Charles MacLaurin Mackerras was American born – he began life in Schenectady on 17 November 1925 – but was raised in Australia. He studied oboe, piano and composition at New South Wales Conservatory in Sydney. His first gig was as principal oboist for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Mackerras emigrated to Britain in 1947, and married the same year.

Though he was at home with every era of music, Mackerras was a pioneer in the early music movement. He wrote, "I was … thinking that the way Handel was performed at that time [1940s] couldn’t be right and why was it necessary to have such big orchestras .. The turning point really came when I … first saw the Boosey & Hawkes miniature scores that came out at the end of the War. And then I saw how different Handel’s own orchestrations were from the way [Hamilton] Harty had rearranged them."

Mackerras was, to my knowledge, the first modern conductor to record Handel’s Royal Fireworks Music with the instrumentation King George had demanded of Handel – no strings, all winds. Mackerras assembled his "band of warlike instruments" in 1959, on the 200th anniversary of Handel’s death. He had to record in the wee hours of the morning – the only time that he could assemble 26 professional oboists all in one place.

Mackerras opened even more eyes and ears in 1965 – still well before the HIP (Historically Informed Performance) movement really took root – when he endeavored to perform Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro as Mozart would have staged it. In the years that followed he took his interpretive ideas to several other opera companies, including the Hamburg, Bavarian, and Vienna State Operas; the Welsh National Opera; San Francisco Opera; and the Met.

As an orchestral conductor, Mackerras was associated with several ensembles, including the Czech Philharmonic (as principal guest conductor, 1997-2003) and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. He was named principal guest conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in 2002.

Mackerras made many highly regarded recordings, including a fine Mozart symphony cycle for Telarc with the Prague Chamber Orchestra. However, he never had a long-term contractual relationship with any label. This left him free to record the projects he chose, with whom he chose, when he chose.

Despite the cancer which had afflicted him for several years, Mackerras maintainted an active schedule. He was to conduct the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Mozart’s Idomeneo as part of the Edinburgh International Festival next month (August 2010).

Mackerras was knighted in 1979 and appointed a Companion of Honour in 2003. He is survived by his wife of 63 years, Judy, and a daughter, Catherine. Another daughter, Fiona, died in 2006.

Further reading:

Sir Charles Mackerras Obituary at The Guardian

Listening:

Sir Charles Mackerras conducts Mozart Symphonies (complete): Amazon, Arkiv Music, CD Universe

Sir Charles Mackeras conducts a wind orchestra in Handel’s Royal Fireworks Music (1959): Amazon, Arkiv Music, CD Universe

WKSU receives no financial advantage from your use of any for-profit vendor cited above. Recordings are available from a variety of sources, both local and online. Links are provided solely for your information, and do not signify an endorsement of any kind.

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