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Batons and Knapsacks

The return of Sir Charles Mackerras to conduct in the orchestra's 75th anniversary year, under the banner 'Australia's most distinguished conductor', prompts the question why there have been so few Australians among the Sydney Symphony's chief conductors. 

Mackerras was the first, and since then only Stuart Challender. That still puts the Sydney orchestra two Australians ahead of Melbourne!

Charles Mackerras' career path, from oboist in the Sydney Symphony, through studies in Prague and extensive experience in Britain and Europe, especially in the opera house, resembles Challender's in some ways, and suggests part of the answer: it is difficult to get the right experience here in Australia, and enough of it. Apart from Challender, and perhaps Moshe Atzmon (aged 36 when he took over the Sydney Symphony in 1967), the Sydney orchestra has never had a chief near the outset of a career, and for several it was, sadly, the end: Nicolai Malko and Willem van Otterloo died here, and Goossens never recovered from the mode of his going from Sydney.

Some say the 'cultural cringe' made imports more acceptable, to audiences at least, than natives. But one would have thought the ABC's network of six full-time symphony orchestras could have been an ideal training ground for local conductors. Some ABC music officials pointed to the potential, near the beginning in the 1930s. Then the war-time cancellation of planned visits by overseas conductors was given a positive spin, as an opportunity for the residents. The main beneficiary was Sir Bernard Heinze, who conducted here, there and everywhere during the war years. Audiences for music grew, the local conductors and soloists were acknowledged to have done well, yet the upshot was a resumed search for an import, fulfilled in Goossens with impressive results.

Heinze himself never seems to have done any conductor training, or suggested any, in his role as the ABC's main music adviser. Whether any of the Australian conductors of that time could have been nurtured into the post is doubtful - Joseph Post is said to have lacked necessary qualities, for all his musical talent and fine technique. What was needed, clearly, in addition, was drive and initiative. A young oboe player in the orchestra of the 1940s had those, even though he may have wished at times that less patience was required. His nephew, and a cohort of young conductors, some of them trained in the programs instituted by the ABC then Symphony Australia, since the 1980s, may be a sign of the future. Whether the chief is Australian matters less because of the musical results than as a sign of the health and vitality of Australia's musical culture.

David Garrett ©2007

Sir Charles Mackerras's appearances with the Sydney Symphony in 2007 turned out to be his last. He died on 14 July 2010, at the age of 84. In those final concerts he conducted music by Mozart and Richard Strauss as well as composers with whom he'd long been associated: Dvořák, Smetana and Janáček. On the same visit he oversaw the semi-staged presentation of Isaac Nathan's opera Don John of Austria.