Richard Gill AO – Perspective & Celebration

 2005 by Jasper Knight enamel, perspex and plywood on board

2005 by Jasper Knight
enamel, perspex and plywood on board

We pay tribute to Richard Gill AO who was born on November 4, 1941 and died at his home on Sunday 28 October, 2018 after a year-long battle with cancer. Richard was a champion of Australian music with no equal. As a celebrated conductor, an educator of children, musicians and curious audience members, and most recently, a founder of the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra, he will be remembered for his contagious energy and flamboyant rhetoric. His passing is a profound loss for the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra and Australia alike.

Richard was introduced to music as a child growing up in the suburbs of Sydney in the 1940s, when he was surrounded by the symbolism and ritual of the Catholic Mass. The chants were in Latin, and he began to sing amid bells and incense, surrounded by vestments, wine and other mystical objects. Years later in an interview for The Australian he explained that “the thing about singing is that everyone can do it, you don’t need expensive instruments, and you can learn all of your musical concepts through the voice.”

Richard spent a life systematically addressing the widespread shortcomings and neglect of music in Australia’s education system. He was convinced of the positive effects of music on young people. This was not to churn out more Mozarts, but to switch children on to creative thinking and lateral problem solving, to inspire young minds to be interested in and engaged with their surroundings, and be able to clearly articulate their observations.

Richard quickly became known as an inspirational interpreter of music, devoted to its abstraction, never simplifying its intricacy. He explains in a TEDx talk that music “doesn’t mean anything outside itself. Music does not describe. Music does not narrate. Music does not tell stories. Music evokes. Music suggests, music implies.” When a child explained that to him the orchestra playing Peer Gynt sounded like “a biscuit,” Richard unflinchingly and earnestly answered “correct.” This is the abstraction that music does so well, and according to Richard, it is this essence that provides children with the opportunity to inhabit a truly unique way of thinking. Adults too were captivated by his charismatic and fascinating explanations of how music works. He gesticulated and expounded in a way that reminded some of us of a Julius Sumner Miller-like mad professor. Adamant and forthright one moment, then exuberant and funny, then a wistful conjurer or reflective poet.

It was in the world of opera that Richard’s masterful rhetoric blossomed. He conducted travelling productions in the early 2000s for Opera Australia’s Touring and Outreach program, then called Oz Opera. These were performances in wool sheds or community halls that attracted almost the entire population of country towns. He might turn to the audience before the beginning of La Bohème to provide a short synopsis, and say “Welcome, Ladies and Gentlemen – girls dies, boy cries,” then swirl around and launch into the overture. This was not disrespect for the art or for the audience, but calling it as he saw it. He pulled no punches when rehearsing, and during his tenure as musical director of the new Victorian Opera he often reminded those on stage that “singing in time is not a special effect.” Or, after a ragged passage from the orchestra he’d offer: “that was a bit dodgeois,” in trademark stage whisper.

Everyone in the room knew that they were a vital and important person when Richard was there. He not only remembered each name after one hearing, but in many cases treated you to a customised pronunciation that seemed to say “I understand you; I think I know what makes you tick.” And woe betide if your name was shared with a character in an opera... Richard’s presence resembled that of an improviser – each audience member, student or player was on the edge of their seats because anything might happen at a moment’s notice, and almost always did! This is the real stuff of music, and it’s joyous and unstoppable.

Everybody who has ever known, seen, or heard Richard could contribute equally humorous and significant stories. But can we really define a life as large as Richard’s by the singling out of moments? What we absolutely must do is continue what he so loved. His most recent initiative was our Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra. Together with Nicole van Bruggen and Rachael Beesley, the idea was born six years ago during rehearsals for The Marriage of Figaro played on period instruments. Richard threw himself into this venture, and the premise was not to create an orchestra under the name of a single maestro, but to establish an “army of generals.” An artistic team and core of expert players work together to create new opportunities for presenting all sorts of music to all sorts of listeners. A youth orchestra program – the Young Mannheim Symphonists – has been established, and music from the past and present is introduced to school students and adults alike at the Voyage of Musical Discovery series. This goes to the core of Richard's vision: music and education working hand-in-hand.

Like the fading of a beautiful sustained note, or that magical silence following a fabulous performance, a loss as significant as Richard Gill cannot be adequately explained or understood. This loss – like music – evokes, suggests and implies. But what we can do is keep making a multitude of sounds. And in every one of them, we know and celebrate that Richard is still there with us. Thank you, Richard.

Rachael Beesley & Nicole van Bruggen
Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra

[written by Charles MacInnes, Marketing & Communications Manager, Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra]

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