An Australian conductor recalls conducting the future Master of the Queen’s Music and more.

Julian Day’s article on Malcolm Williamson in this month's Limelight rekindled many vivid memories of my collaborations with this distinguished composer/performer over the years. In 1967, whilst I was on tour through South Australia with the then South Australian Symphony Orchestra, a message came through that, due to the indisposition of the scheduled conductor, I was needed urgently in Melbourne to record two of Malcolm Williamson’s Piano Concertos, with the composer as soloist.

We duly met some days later, and recorded them with the MSO. Subsequently, their issue on an ABC in-house LP led to those performances being played for many years over ABC and other Fine Music outlets. However, it would be over 10 years before we worked together again as soloist and conductor.  In the interim though, we kept in contact periodically, as I frequently programmed his works in concerts and broadcasts.  

Our next appearance together was in London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1978, when Malcolm and the great English pianist, Dame Moura Lympany, were soloists in his Concerto for Two Pianos. The Finale of this Concerto has some tricky 'corners' for orchestra and soloists, and at the end of our performance the audience went wild. We on stage were pleased too, having negotiated the third movement’s rhythmic twists and turns. Then, very much to Moura’s and my surprise, Malcolm suddenly announced to the audience, we would repeat the Finale as an ‘extra’ – which we did with equal success! After that extra ‘workout’, we appreciated the relaxed post-concert supper even more!

Malcolm Williamson with the Queen Mother in 1978

One other memory also comes to mind from 1978. With Malcolm’s long awaited Mass of Christ the King finally complete, we sat together with the large score in Westminster Cathedral during Sir Charles Groves’ final rehearsal. The subsequent premiere was a great success – probably, too, a great relief for the composer after earlier postponements of its completion date.

Malcolm’s wide spectrum of choral music – especially sacred and ecclesiastical – plus his diverse children’s operas were always a joy. He had the knack – and not all composers do – of connecting with his audience. One example was his Cassation for audience and orchestra, The Stone Wall, where the audience is divided into several parts, each competing with the other. This always proved great entertainment.

The Australian Orchestras also did a number of his Symphonies with me, some for the first time.  One was his Symphony No 5, with the SSO in 1981. Then the following year, as part of the ABC’s 50th Jubilee Concert in the Opera House, the premiere of In Thanksgiving which, as things turned out, was his moving tribute, not only to the ABC, but also to Sir Bernard Heinze whose death had just occurred.     

I found Malcolm’s music always stimulating, entertaining or moving, as the case may be; and though at times complex, it always worked well in performance provided one did one’s homework!  In truth, Malcolm Williamson had an unusually creative mind, and as Piers Lane, Antony Gray and Richard Mills concurred, his full stature has yet to be fully recognised, as is so often the case with great composers.

Julian Day's in-depth feature on Malcolm Williamson is in May 2014's Limelight.