One maestro pays tribute to another, recalling a friend, a mentor and one of the true giants of the Australian music scene.
Just 20 years ago this month I was in Melbourne with the cast of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Sunset Boulevard, rehearsing towards opening night on October 26th, 1996. I was Associate Conductor on the show, working with Musical Director Brian Stacey. As with any show approaching opening night there was a lot of nervousness in the air. It was a big, dark, expensive musical and we were also reopening the Regent Theatre, a vast space designed for cinema rather than the immediacy of human theatre.
Two nights before opening, Brian conducted a successful preview. Crowds cheered at Debra Byrne as Norma Desmond and cheered even more for Hugh Jackman playing the Hollywood writer Joe Gillis, three or more years before his own ascent to Hollywood stardom. I said goodnight to Brian as he went off on his motorbike, first to a drink with some of the cast and then on to his home in Northcote. I never saw him again. In the early hours of the Friday morning he was killed in a hit-and-run accident and died in hospital. One of Australia’s most talented conductors and musicians snuffed out in a single terrible mistake.
Sunset Boulevard opened two days later with the American musical supervisor Paul Bogaev in charge, and then I took on from the Monday after opening night, conducting the show with one of Brian’s batons that he had left in the pit. For as long as the show ran in Melbourne I would look up at the opening scene of Joe Gillis floating dead in the pool and think of Brian and the loss of a truly individual artist.
Brian was an unusual conductor in that he worked across all the genres. He worked with Sir Charles Mackerras as an assistant, he conducted opera with Lyric Opera of Queensland, ballet with the Queensland Ballet. He was Musical Director for the Australian Ballet and Victoria State Opera and was the original conductor of the first Australian production of The Phantom of the Opera. He was quick-witted and quick-tempered and he would fight for his musicians. I remember a blazing row about a sound shield he had with a technical director during Sunset. The argument was over the look of the shield from the dress circle as opposed to the possibility of permanent hearing damage for our cellist, and Brian won the argument where many others would have buckled under.
“His death affected so many in the music industry because he touched so many“
His death affected so many in the music industry because he touched so many, not least his partner at the time Kate Sadler. A year after his death, Kate, together with Andrea Gaze, Stephen Dee and other friends, established an award in his name to assist emerging Australian conductors further their careers. I won the first award in 1998 and 20 other conductors have also benefitted from the award as well. They include Daniel Carter, currently First Kapellmeister at the Freiburg Opera; Vanessa Scammell, Musical Director for the Helpmann Awards and formerly Assistant Conductor at the Australian Ballet; Dane Lam, Principal Conductor and Artistic Director of China’s Xi’an Symphony Orchestra; and Melbourne Symphony Associate Conductor Benjamin Northey who said in his acceptance speech: “Brian’s talent, his commitment to the highest musical standards, his easy-going way, his warmth and charisma, his integrity and his respect for people are all things I aspire to not only as a fellow Australian conductor but also as a human being.”
After 20 years, the Stacey Trust is winding up and the final recipient was announced at the recent Helpmann Awards. Toby Thatcher is currently Assistant Conductor at the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and another worthy winner destined for big things.
Over the last months I have also been helping make a visual documentary about Brian – including interviews with Hugh Jackman and Sir Charles Mackerras, recorded before his death in 2010. The Stacey Documentary will be released in sync with the final celebration event, The Stacey Night on October 24. There was footage from our rehearsals in Melbourne 20 years ago, and seeing Brian alive and well, feisty and full of life brought back the shock and the sadness of his sudden disappearance. It is a testament to his personality that 20 years later, people still speak so fondly of a great man and a great musician.