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Conductor Charles Mackerras Dies At 84

Conductor Charles Mackerras, photographed in 1974, will be remembered for rebuilding the reputation of Czech composer Leos Janacek.
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Conductor Charles Mackerras, photographed in 1974, will be remembered for rebuilding the reputation of Czech composer Leos Janacek.

The music world has lost one of its most brilliant and musical conductors. Charles Mackerras died of cancer Wednesday, according to an announcement from his management company. He was 84.

It was easy to be confused about Mackerras' nationality. Although he was born in Schenectady, N.Y., in 1925, he spent little time in the U.S. Instead, he grew up in Australia, where he became the principal oboist of the Sydney Symphony. But then Mackerras moved to Europe, establishing longterm relationships with orchestras and opera companies in London, where he died Wednesday night.

If there was one nation where Mackerras' musical heart truly belonged, it was the Czech Republic. In the late 1940s, Mackerras studied under the Czech master conductor Vaclav Talich at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. It was a special night, in 1947, when Mackerras first saw a production ofJanacek's Kata Kabanova and experienced an epiphany.

"What a revelation this performance was to me," Mackerras later wrote. "Here was a composer whose very name I hardly knew, who had been dead 20 years, writing an opera in an entirely different idiom from anything I had ever known, who used the human voice and the inflections of his strange-sounding language in an absolutely original way, and whose instrumentation and harmony produced colors and sounds unlike anything I had heard before."

Mackerras would go on to almost singlehandedly rebuild Janacek's reputation as one of the most important opera composers of the 20th century. He painstakingly re-edited Janacek's prickly yet passionate scores, which had been tinkered with to soften their sometimes startling orchestral effects.

In 1951, Mackerras led the British premiere of Kata Kabanova and was awarded the Janacek Medal in 1978. Mackerras recorded all of the composer's major operas.

'Keenly Musical' Mackerras

Although Janacek became a lifelong passion, Mackerras' musical tastes were broad. In 1959, at the dawn of the authentic instruments movement, he assembled a mammoth group of wind players in London for an electrifying (and some say drunken) recording of Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks, in its original instrumentation.

Mackerras never opted for the glittering, high-powered career paths some conductors take. Yet he was held in the highest esteem by critics, who often praised him for bringing "intelligence and beauty" to nearly everything he conducted. The New Yorker's Alex Ross called him "one of the most keenly musical conductors of our time."

Mackerras mastered the art of conducting both Mozart's symphonies and operas. He also recorded the complete symphonies of Beethoven, and those of Brahms, in beautifully transparent scaled-down orchestrations, once used by the composer himself. For more than 50 years, Mackerras conducted opera and symphonic music at England's Sadler Wells Opera (now the English National Opera) and the Edinburgh Festival.

Mackerras was knighted in 1979. He is survived by his wife and a daughter.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.