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The great Australian conductor Patrick Thomas has died aged 85. The Queensland Symphony Orchestra's last native-born Chief Conductor, Thomas worked with all of the state symphony orchestras, enjoyed a succesful international career and was a passionate advocate for Australian music and artists.
"Queensland Symphony Orchestra is saddened to hear of the passing of Patrick Thomas, former Chief Conductor from 1973 to 1977," the QSO said in a statement. "Under his direction the Orchestra became an Australian leader in the performance of new music and promoted programmes such as Proms, which continues today. We offer our sincere condolences to his family and friends at this time."
“Patrick was a true gentleman, and Melbourne and Victorian audiences were privileged to see him conduct the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra many times throughout his career," said Sophie Galaise, Managing Director of the MSO. "As the MSO’s Conductor in Residence during the early 1980s he led our orchestra with grace, dignity and professionalism. His passion for education brought a new generation of music lovers to orchestras around Australia, and while I did not have the pleasure of meeting him in person, his legacy lives on as part of the MSO’s history.”
Sydney Symphony Orchestra Director of Artistic Planning Raff Wilson said: "The SSO community is deeply saddened by the passing of Patrick Thomas. As a conductor of the ABC symphony orchestras, including the SSO, Thomas left an indelible impression on this country’s musical landscape. He was a versatile and talented conductor with a gift for mastering difficult repertoire in a short timeframe, and was a particular champion of Australian composers as well as neglected works from the classical canon. Many from the SSO audiences of the 1970s and 80s will remember seeing Patrick Thomas on the podium, and an even wider audience of listeners enjoyed his numerous broadcasts and recordings for the ABC, which notably included recordings with the QSO and SSO of music by our first Chief Conductor Eugene Goossens. As one of the first conductors to base his artistic career in Australia, his influence on all levels of our musical life is worthy of tribute."
Born in 1932 in Brisbane, Thomas was inspired by Eugene Ormandy’s war-time performances at Brisbane City Hall, which he heard when he was 12 years old. He made his orchestral debut on his 14th birthday as third flute in the Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s first ever concert in 1947 – Eugene Goossens’ first concert in Australia. Thomas went on to work as a flautist with the orchestra from 1951 to 1955.
He left the orchestra to take an accounting job, which allowed him the freedom to pursue his conducting passion, directing the Ann Street Presbyterian Church choir in 1958. He also became deputy conductor of the Brisbane Services Choir and founded the Patrick Thomas Singers. He was soon doing freelance conducting for the ABC and became a resident conductor of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust in 1964.
In 1965 he was deputy to Henry Krips at the South Australian Symphony Orchestra and took up directorship of the Adelaide Singers. Thomas was resident conductor with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra in 1968 before returning to Adelaide. In 1970 Thomas was sent to Europe on a scholarship sponsored by the Australian Opera Auditions Committee thanks to Bernard Heinze and in 1972 travelled to the UK, the USA and Canada on a Churchill Scholarship.
Thomas was appointed Chief Conductor of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in 1973, a position he held for five years. During this time Thomas established a series of successful Modern Music Forum concerts with ABC's Queensland Music Manager Tony Gould. He became the ABC’s conductor in residence from 1978 to 1986 and musical director of the ABC Sinfonia in 1986. During his tenure with the ABC, Thomas frequently had to step in for other conductors at the last minute – he gave the Australian premiere of Penderecki’s St Luke Passion when the Polish composer cancelled.
At the 1984 Adelaide Festival, Thomas conducted a season of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and Biber’s Missa Salisburgensis. He became Artistic Director of New Zealand’s Wellington City Opera in 1988, holding the post for three years. Throughout Thomas’ career he recorded and performed widely with Australian orchestras – ABC Classics released an eight-CD box set of his recordings in 2011 – but he also conducted the Moscow Philharmonic, Bavarian Radio Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Prague Radio Orchestra among others.
Thomas was also a fierce advocate for Australian music and composers. “The nearest figure we can calculate with certainty is that during the height of his Australian career from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, Patrick conducted the music of at least 110 different Australian composers,” said broadcaster Martin Buzacott in a 2014 speech honouring Thomas’ Distinguished Service Award at the 2011 Art Music Awards. “There are probably many more than this. With many of these composers he established long-term relationships, conducting multiple works of theirs at all stages of their careers, and championing their cause at every opportunity.”
Thomas published his autobiography Upbeats and Downbeats: a Conductor's Life in 2010.
A much loved figure, even in retirement, Thomas was one of Limelight Magazine's most diligent correspondents, writing on a wide rage of subjects, from cuts at Classic FM to the often-humorous semantics of classical music. He was also an inveterate poet. "A lovely man and a regular letter writer to Limelight. I'll miss his sensible ideas and kind humanity," tweeted Limelight Editor Clive Paget, while broadcaster Christopher Lawrence put it in a nutshell, tweeting: "Sad news. One of the planet's gentlemen."
Thomas was appointed a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for his service to music in 1978, was presented with the Sir Bernard Heinze Memorial Award in 1990 and in 1998 became the first Australian conductor to become an honorary life member of the Fellowship of Australian Composers. He was named a member of the Order of Australia in 2014.