English National Opera’s current Music Director Edward Gardner will be joined by two former holders of the post on Sunday in paying tribute to yet another, the late Sir Charles Mackerras, at a star-studded celebration concert.

Sir Charles died last July at the age of 84 and Gardner will share honours with Sir Mark Elder and Paul Daniel in celebrating his life and work, with a programme of some of his favourite music. 

I spoke to Sir Mark about what Mackerras had meant to him personally and what he sees as the Australian conductor’s lasting legacy.

“Sir Charles was of course a very senior conductor when I was starting out,” he tells me, “and he encouraged me and gave me opportunities (and the confidence) you badly need as a young conductor.  We had a very good relationship and became very good colleagues and friends.”

“He was lovely, in fact, completely straightforward and with no side.  An honest man with a heart of gold.  He was something of a rough diamond; you had to take him as you found him.  And, of course it goes without saying, he was a brilliantly talented musician. He had an immense talent for style, which is to say he could turn his hand to music of all periods.  Not all conductors can do that. He gave me my head and launched my career.  He was so generous and trusting and I can say he gave me my grounding as a conductor.”

The two men from different generations were colleagues for many years and I asked Sir Mark when he last saw and worked with Sir Charles.  “Well, I took him and Judy out to lunch the Christmas before last and then in June and July we were at Glyndebourne together – he doing Cosi and I Billy Budd.  We saw a lot of each other then.”

Mackerras was a towering figure in the post-war British music scene, having come across from Australia as a young conductor.  He was Music Director for English National Opera from 1970 to 1977, and his protégé Mark Elder took over shortly after.

I asked Elder what he sees as Sir Charles’s lasting legacy.  “He was a pioneer as a young conductor,” he says, “he was fighting for the way Handel, Mozart and Janacek, in particular, should be played.  And there was always such a sense of excitement about his performances.  He was a great performer and that’s what people will remember.”

Sunday’s concert takes place at the Coliseum at 7.00pm and Sir Mark will contribute a number of items including the divine quartet from Fidelio (Kate Valentine, Kathryn Harries, Timothy Robinson and Brindley Sherratt), several pieces by Sir Arthur Sullivan (with vocalists including Lesley Garrett, Peter Rose and Sophie Bevan) and the finale of Der Rosenkavalier, an opera that Mackerras last conducted at Covent Garden in 2004.  Yvonne Kenny, Diana Montague and Sophie Bevan will be the trio of female voices.

Edward Gardner will contribute extracts from Idomeneo, Tosca and Peter Grimes, while Paul Daniel will conduct pieces from The Marriage of Figaro, Cosi fan tutte, Julius Caesar  and Falstaff.  Sir Charles’s beloved Janacek will be represented by “One Moment” from Jenufa, sung by Susan Bickley.

The extraordinary line-up of talent will also include Christine Rice, Anthony Michaels-Moore, John Tomlinson, Matthew Rose, Jonathan Summers and Felicity Palmer and the whole amounts to a fitting tribute to one of the best-loved of post-war conductors.

Sir Charles Mackerras: A Celebration in Music will take place at the London Coliseum on Sunday 26 June at 7.00pm.  Tickets are available at www.eno.org.  All proceeds will go to the ENO Benevolent Fund.

- Simon Thomas