The long road home

Fifty years ago Sir Charles Mackerras studied with Vaclav Talich (above right) in Prague. Next year he returns as principal guest conductor of the Czech Philharmonic. By Judith Hendershott
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The Independent Culture
La forza del destino is how Sir Charles Mackerras describes his chance meeting with an amateur Czech cellist in early 1947 - an encounter that changed the course of his life and was to influence British music- making for decades to come. Mackerras had sailed into London from his native Australia that January ("on one of the first ships to leave Sydney after the war"). He got a job at Sadler's Wells as second oboe and cor anglais and also picked up some repetiteur work. "I was sitting in a restaurant in Kensington. I had just bought a score of Dvorak's Seventh Symphony, and was studying it while waiting for my meal to come, when the man opposite me said: `Ah, you are studying the music of my country' - and this wonderful man, Josef Weisslitzer, who had been in England for some time, told me about a British Council scholarship to Prague." The 21-year-old Mackerras applied and, shortly afterwards, he and his bride, first clarinet in the Sadler's Wells orchestra, found themselves en route to Prague, where they came face to face with the reality of postwar Europe.

"Food was pretty scarce," Sir Charles recalls, "but we found a way of getting more provisions - milk and butter - with the help of a doctor's certificate. I was extremely skinny then, so it was credible that I was suffering from undernourishment." He and his wife were there when the Communists took over in February 1948. "The tragic thing was that the people who had been in concentration camps during the war were rehabilitated for a very short time and were then imprisoned by the Communists. I knew examples of that in my closest circles when we were students there." In August, Mackerass returned to London to assume the job of Assistant Conductor at Sadler's Wells.

Fifty years after that formative meeting in Kensington, Sir Charles is now poised to assume the post of Principal Guest Conductor with the Czech Philharmonic. His appointment - effective from 1997 - was announced in Prague at the end of last month, following the resignation in January of the orchestra's controversial former Chief Conductor, Gerd Albrecht - the first non-Czech to hold the post. Although Mackerras declined the orchestra's initial offer of Chief Conductor - "I always thought that there should be a Czech Chief Conductor," he insists, "and that the orchestra's Czechness was one of its great calling-cards, which makes it different from Berlin or Vienna" - he agreed to become Principal Guest ("provided I could make time").

Sir Charles's credentials are impeccable: he studied conducting in Prague with the eminent Vaclav Talich, Chief Conductor of the CPO from 1919-1941. Mackerras learnt not only Talich's meticulous conducting technique but heard for the first time the music of Janacek, at a National Theatre performance of Katya Kabanova conducted by Talich. "When I returned from Prague in 1948 one of the things I did was to bring Janacek to Britain." On the day of our interview Mackerras had just returned from a week in Prague, where he had conducted - to an ecstatic reception - the original version of the Glagolitic Mass, the first time this version had been performed there. Mackerras, ever the authenticist, had conducted the first Czech performance in Brno, Janacek's home town, last September.

Mackerras also speaks fluent Czech, much appreciated by the orchestral musicians. In 1947-48 he regularly attended the Philharmonic's rehearsals, not only to watch Talich but also Rafael Kubelik, the then newly-appointed Chief Conductor, and Erich Kleiber - "that was a real education. Kleiber spoke Czech - he and Szell both spoke Czech, as they had been associated with the so-called `German' (now State) Opera in Prague. Since that time the only foreign conductor to speak Czech with them is myself."

During the Albrecht years there were two distinct factions within the orchestra. Does he see himself as a healer? "The Principal Guest Conductor should not involve himself in politics at all," he says. "What I bring them is my expertise in Czech music, my love of Czech culture, and an impressive recording contract, with a large number of recordings of Czech music, mainly with Decca and including Rusalka."

Mackerras has been associated with the Czech Philharmonic for almost the whole of his musical life, whether as listener or as conductor. He even conducted Ma Vlast in the last Prague Spring to be held under communist rule (May 1989), one of the few non-Czechs to conduct Smetana's nationalist epic with the orchestra. His new appointment brings his career full circle.

"For me it is quite moving, in a way: my championship of Janacek, Martinu, Suk, has meant that I'm always returning to Czechoslovakia and thinking about Czech things, even when I'm in the USA doing Rusalka or The Makropulos Case. I just feel it's right for me."

Sir Charles tells a story that perhaps illustrates his place in the hearts of ordinary Czechs: "Near the Prague National Theatre there is a restaurant called The Rusalka. Last week I was holding auditions when my appointment had just been announced. The waitress said, `Haven't I seen you on television?' - I had just done an interview on Czech TV. She got the manager and he said, `Aren't you Sir Charles Mackerras? - what an honour, please have the coffee on us." Can you imagine such a thing ever happening in London?"