Sydney Opera House, January 1995.
As part of the Australian Intervarsity Choral Festival that year, we learned Carmina Burana
(affectionately called either "carmina" or "the banana") to sing with the Sydney Symphony (thank YOU very much) in the Opera House (thank you very VERY much).
The big pop tune from Carmina is O Fortuna
, (which opens and closes the piece) and rightly so. It's a monumental piece to hear (full choir, full orchestra, two pianos, a huge gong and massive amounts of percussion - phwoar!); and wonderful to sing, because you absolutely get the maximum amount of emotional/vocal bang for your buck, especially the closing chorus. I always ended up with a massive case of the shivers
every time I sang it as a chorister.
You should really go and look at this version on YouTube: it has the latin and the translation, and the desperate, driven nature of the chorus makes so much sense and you may even get a little shivery yourself
In particular, you should listen to the last forty seconds when, after taxiing rather impressively down the runway for two minutes, the entire movement takes flight and roars into the sky and is unstoppable, because those last forty seconds of the Opera House Carmina have been running through my head for the last few hours. Here's why:
It was my extreme good fortune to learn Carmina in exactly the right circumstances: a choir made up of passionate choristers from around the country, with the average age of same in their 20s and 30s (I am NOT saying older choirs can't sing Carmina - but I do think the raw energy an experienced younger choir pours into the piece can be quite electrifying); with big tenor and bass sections (they anchor the piece and they have to be good and have some depth of talent); a screamingly-tight learning curve (means one paid rigorous attention); and, oh my: into rehearsal walks a funny little man with a baton, a big smile and more charm and talent than should be able to be contained in such a dapper vessel.
This was only Sir Charles freaking Mackerras
. He sat on a hastily-pulled up desk, and unconsciously swung his little dangling legs, and even stuck out his tongue in time as he conducted and took rehearsal and did the magic thing all the very best conductors can pull off: he made us love him and want to please him by getting it right
. I'm not sure how they do it; or how they face down the disorganised rabbles of huge orchestras and choirs and soloists and never (obviously) quiver or flinch; but he did it. There was rank adoration billowing towards him from - well - the ranks - by the end of the first rehearsal.
The correct etiquette in the classical music sphere is to refer to a conductor as "maestro"
(you can call them Bob or whatever outside of rehearsal, but it should be "maestro" during, or they'll want to know why) - some of them accept it as a matter of course; and some of them you want to spit the title in their smug and untalented faces; and some of them you can't think of them in any other way
, and those are the best ones. Sir Charles was one of those conductors.
Fast-forward to the Sydney Opera house later that month. We're (*schniff*
) most of the way through Carmina
. It's been an absolute blast and we didn't need to read the glowing reviews the next day to know if was one of the good ones (one of my friends was in the audience and she said she could always find me in the 200-strong choir by the blinding smile I had on my face for most of it); and we come to O Fortuna
. You sort of fall into that last chorus after diving off a top B that you've been holding forever
(depending on how long the conductor thinks he can keep you there and not shred the entire sop 1 section's vocal cords), and it comes as something of a relief to hear the big gong and scream "O ForTUNa!" down an octave.
We get drawn into the slowly-accelerating musical maelstrom, and it whips up into those final forty seconds of dear-god-I-could-not-stop-now-even-if-I-
wanted-to-hang-OOOOON and as one we hit the last phrase: mecum omnes plangite!
- every single voice roaring out that huge, last chord; every player in the Sydney Symphony going hell for leather, scraping, banging and blowing like a whirlwind; and in the eye of the storm, a funny little man in tails, with his arms flung wide demanding EVERYTHING
, and getting it, and suspending us all in that glorious, prismatic, climactic musical vortex for a little eternity; and searing it indelibly into my memory for the rest of my life.
Ladies and gentlemen: Sir Charles Mackerras.
Conductor Charles Mackerras dies
Sir Charles Mackerras had a 60-year relationship with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. (AFP: Radel Mica, file photo)
Mackerras was a noted authority on Mozart and the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan.
He had a 60-year relationship with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (SSO) - first as a casual oboist during World War II, before becoming the orchestra's principal oboe in 1946.
He went on to conduct the orchestra for the opening concert at the Sydney Opera House in 1973.
In 1980, he became the first non-Briton to conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Last Night of the Proms.
In 1982, he became the first Australian national to become chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony - a position he held until 1985.
Most recently, Mackerras conducted the SSO in 2007 as part of its 75th anniversary celebrations.
"The connection between Sir Charles and the Sydney Symphony has run deep for over 60 years," said managing director Rory Jeffes in a statement.
"He was a man of great musical scholarship, talent and energy.
"We are all deeply saddened to have lost such an eminent conductor and a special part of the Sydney Symphony family.
"Our thoughts are with Sir Charles' loved ones at this time."
Mackerras, who was born in New York in 1925 to Australian parents, was also the first recipient of the Queen's Medal for Music.