Erich Auerbach / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Conductor Charles Mackerras in the '70s.
Conductor Charles Mackerras in the '70s. Erich Auerbach / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Conductor Charles Mackerras died of cancer last night in London at age 84. Mackerras conducted the English National Opera, the Royal Opera and the BBC Concert Orchestra, among many others. But it was his passion for the music of a certain Czech composer that made a big impact on NPR's classical music producer Tom Huizenga.
Once people find out that I love classical music, they inevitably ask, "Who's your favorite composer?" It's an impossible question. But more often than not, I simply answer by saying one name: Leos Janacek.
And one man is chiefly responsible — conductor Charles Mackerras. As a 22-year old oboist from Australia, Mackerras moved to Europe in 1947, landing in Prague. One night he found himself at a production of Janacek's opera Kat'a Kabanova. And that's where Mackerras had a Janacek revelation.
Later, he wrote that for him, it was like Janacek's music had dropped out of the sky. That Janacek had, "used the human voice and the inflexions 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."
From that point on, Mackerras began to champion Janacek's operatic and orchestral music. It was an ambitious undertaking. Opera companies had little or no knowledge of Janacek's prickly yet passionate music. It was a financial risk. And besides, they were all in Czech, a tricky language that's tough enough to sing even for natives.
Mackerras perservered. In 1951 he convinced the Sadler Wells Opera (now the English National Opera) to let him mount a Janacek opera, the first British production of Kat'a Kabanova.
Fast-forward 30 years, and Mackerras, still hot on the Janacek trail, records a version of the composer's Sinfonietta, a piece that is, at turns, sparkling, pounding, sweeping, and singing. And that's when I have my own Janacek epiphany.
Mackerras' recording introduced me to Janacek's music and I've never looked back. I began listening to everything I could get my hands on. In college, while others pinned "Sex Pistols" buttons to their book bags, I fashioned my own Janacek button, by photocopying his image from an album cover.
Later, I traveled to New York, Chicago and Europe to see Janacek's operas. And every time I experienced one — as the motoric rhythms drilled into me, and the tender wisps of melody swept over me — I felt like my life had changed for the better.
Then, I met a lovely woman, the daughter of opera singers, who shared my passion for the quirky music of Janacek. For our wedding, it was a no-brainer. Charles Mackerras would conduct the Sinfonietta.
And so, after we spoke our handwritten vows, as we stood in the living room of a Santa Fe Justice of the Peace, I nodded to my friend Wilson. Clutching a medium-sized boom box, he punched the play button, and out poured Janacek's gleaming, brass fanfare. The music never sounded so right.
So thank you Charles Mackerras, for throwing wide open the doors and letting Janacek's music ring out. The entire music-loving world — and my wife and I — owe you one.