Sir Charles Mackerras

The Philharmonia Orchestra's much loved Principal Guest Conductor, Sir Charles Mackerras, passed away on 14 July 2010 at the age of 84. Sir Charles had been Principal Guest Conductor since December 2002. 

Born in 1925 of Australian parents in America, Sir Charles Mackerras studied in Sydney and Prague and made his début as an opera conductor at Sadler’s Wells. He was First Conductor of the Hamburg Opera (1966-69) and Musical Director of both Sadler’s Wells (later English National Opera) (1970-77), and of Welsh National Opera (1987-92), where his notable Janáček productions, amongst many others, were acclaimed. From 1976-79 Sir Charles was Chief Conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and also conducted the opening public concert at the Sydney Opera House. Sir Charles was Conductor Laureate of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Principal Guest Conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra, Conductor Emeritus of the Welsh National Opera and Principal Guest Conductor Emeritus of the San Francisco Opera. A specialist in Czech repertory, Sir Charles was Principal Guest Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra from 1997 - 2003, following his life-long association with both the Orchestra and many aspects of Czech musical life.

Sir Charles undertook much research into performance practice of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One of the highlights of the 1991 season was the re-opening of the Estates Theatre in Prague, scene of the original première of Don Giovanni. Sir Charles conducted a new production of that opera to mark the bi-centenary of Mozart’s death. He recorded all Mozart’s Symphonies and Serenades with the Prague Chamber Orchestra. With the Scottish Chamber Orchestra he recorded seven Mozart operas and La Clemenza di Tito following a performance at the 2005 Edinburgh International Festival. 2002 marked Sir Charles’ 50th year with the Edinburgh Festival, in which he conducted Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, Handel’sJephtha and Mozart’s Gran Partita.

His vast discography includes an award-winning cycle of Janáček operas with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Britten’s Gloriana [awarded ‘Gramophone’ magazine’s Best Opera Recording for 1994] and Dvořák’s Rusalka with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra [awarded ‘Gramophone’ magazine’s ‘Best Opera Recording’ and ‘Best Recording of the Year’, the ‘Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik’, ‘Prix Caecilia’ and ‘Edison Award’ for 1999]. Notable are his recordings with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra of Beethoven’s and Mahler’s symphonies and Brahms’ four symphonies with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Sir Charles and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra recorded eight Mozart concertos with Alfred Brendel. Sir Charles has recorded much Czech music with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, including Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances, Smetana’s Ma Vlast, Martinů’s Field Mass Double Concerto and Janáček’s Kat’a KabanovaSarka and the Glagolitic Mass all forSupraphon. More recently he recorded The Magic Flute and The Makropolous Casefor Chandos records.

Sir Charles was for many years associated with the Royal Opera House and since 1964 he conducted 30 operas there, including Un Ballo in Maschera, which opened on the occasion of his 80th birthday. In addition to his many appearances with the San Francisco Opera, he maintained a long association with the Metropolitan Opera, New York. He made his début at the Salzburg Festival, with the Vienna Philharmonic, conducting Le Nozze di Figaro in 1998, and returned to Salzburg to conduct the Orchestra in a programme of Schubert and Mozart in 2005. He made his début with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 2004, in which year he also made his début at the National Theatre Prague, conducting Janáček's Vylety pana broucka (The Excursions of Mr Broucek).

Sir Charles received a CBE in 1974 and was knighted in 1979. He was honoured with the Medal of Merit from the Czech Republic in 1996, made a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1997 and made a Companion of Honour in the 2003 Queen’s Birthday Honours. In May 2005 he was presented with the Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal and in November 2005 was the first recipient of the Queen’s Medal for Music. He was a DMus (Hon) of the Universities of Hull, York, Nottingham, Griffith (Australia), Oxford, Napier, Melbourne, Sydney, the Janáček Academy of Music (Brno) and the Prague Academy of Music. Sir Charles was also President of Trinity College of Music.