Richard Gill sits back and stretches his shoulders. “I’m a bulldozer,” he declares. “I’m not going to change, I’m 75. I’ve got a loud mouth, and I go for the jugular.”

The question asked related to how he gets results and his ongoing frustrations with matters to do with music education, but it could equally apply to any or all of the organisations he’s led and the causes he’s championed over the past 50 years.

Richard Gill. Photo by Sam Grimmer

Right now, we are sitting in a café in Sydney’s Queen Victoria Building. Not Gill’s favourite café – that was closed off as he’d arrived early for an 8am interview and the upper echelons of the building weren’t open to the public at such an ungodly hour. He’s wheeling his carry-on luggage prior to a flight to Melbourne, and though I’m clearly squeezed in between his waking up and taking off, he’s never less than generous with his time.

I’ve known Richard Gill now for just two years, but I would definitely count myself in the category of supporter and fan. That doesn’t go for everybody, mind. Gill can be a thorn in the side of mindless bureaucracy, his plain speaking style capable of rubbing slow-witted naysayers up the wrong way. For those who know and love him, he commands a loyalty rare in this day and age. Take Jasper Knight, the artist whose appropriately Beethovian portrait is on the front of this month’s magazine, and who Gill once taught. When I ask his permission to use it, the reply is instantaneous: “Of course! Anything for Richard.”

As we speak, Gill has just been awarded the Order of Australia in the Queen’s Birthday Honours, something he assures me was unexpected. “These things don’t enter my mind,” he says, fixing me with those piercing eyes. “I don’t think ‘gosh it’s about time I got a gong’, because I’m quite critical of gongs. But then I discussed it with my family and they said ‘Look, you have to do it on behalf of everything you’ve worked for and for music education in the country’. So it’s recognition that a whole heap of people have been working together.”

Though he admits to having always been conflicted about performing and teaching, music education is probably the cause most deeply ingrained in his being. “When I was a kid I wanted to be a pianist,” he tells me, “but anyone who plays music wants to be a pianist or a flautist or a violinist or what have you. I was motivated by the fame rather than the music, and I didn’t even really know what that meant anyway. Who does at 13? I must say though, there was a brother called Brother Joseph at my school, and he asked me to mind a fourth-grade class one day, and to try and teach them something. I was 14. I remember him saying, ‘Did you like that?’ and I said ‘Yes, I did.’”

Richard Gill’s portrait, painted by Jasper Knight, hangs in his home in Sydney

Born in Sydney in 1941, young Richard Gill was accepted into the Paddington-based Alexander Mackie Teachers College in 1958 at the tender age of 16. “We were the first intake into the college and I did my first teaching practice about six weeks after that at Eastwood Primary School,” he explains. That’s when a light went on for me. I realised that teaching was really powerful and potent and that it was very interesting to see the way kids reacted or didn’t react to music.”

Soon after, he went to the Sydney Conservatorium where he admits he felt terribly behind many of his contemporaries. “All the other kids were fabulous,” he says. “They’d been learning since they were four or five and were good at things like harmony and all that sort of stuff. I knew I had an enormous amount of ground to make up so I just put my head down and went for it.”

Defining himself as part of the Bill Haley generation, Gill was certainly aware that classical music wasn’t the only gig in town. He played piano in a rock band and sang in a vocal group. “When I started teaching there was a sort of virtue in liking classical music, but that’s crazy. Rock and roll was really out there, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. I stopped thinking that classical music is good for everybody and that everyone should know about Beethoven. It’s not that I don’t think people should know about Beethoven, but the way to do it is not to bash people over the head.”

This was the beginning of what Gill refers to as his early crusading years. As a student teacher, ideas of ‘passing on the heritage’ or introducing children to the obligatory Carnival of the Animals, just didn’t seem to ring true. “Pass on the heritage? What does that mean?” he snorts. “But one thing that I always did with my kids at school was to get them to improvise, to invent. That’s when I got interested in the idea that if kids understood how to make music, they would understand much more about it. So I became a sort of crazy crusader.”

In the late 1960s, Gill headed overseas to London to learn to teach infant kids, followed by a stint at the Orff Institute in Salzburg in 1971 where he met Carl Orff himself (even famously playing piano in a performance of Carmina Burana under the composer’s own baton) and was exposed to his radical Schulwerk programme for teaching music to children. Joining forces with colleagues who’d returned from Hungary fired up with Kodály teaching methods, Gill and co. went on the offensive.

Richard Gil, photo © Brendan Read

“We could see what was going on here, which was crap. It was crap. The heritage was shit!” he expostulates. “Smetana’s Moldau? Why did kids in Australia have to know about the Moldau? Who cares, really? There’s a world of music out there. We were being trained to teach secondary kids, whose attitudes were formed at the age of 12. I encountered kids who hated music. They hated what they thought I stood for – which was Beethoven. They wanted the Beatles. Why shouldn’t they? That was so wrong. No, we should all have been working in primary schools.”

That need to impart music to children early on is a key part of Gill’s philosophy, even today. “At college we were told there was no point in teaching singing and that everything about it was dumb,” he explains. “In my view, it begins absolutely with singing, as early as possible. If you can nail that, you’ve opened up the world to kids in a really special way.”

“This country, educationally? Long way to go,” he sighs. “Long, long way to go. And now, we’re doing our best to get it wrong at every possible level. People know that NAPLAN [The National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy] is a complete waste of time and we’re pushing it harder than ever. It just doesn’t make sense.”

So much for Gill the educator, but the man has always had other strings to his bow, and founding ensembles and organisations has always been a core part of his activities as well, starting with the Strathfield Symphony Orchestra, which he co-founded in 1969 with former Sydney Symphony Orchestra violinist Emily Finn. “That orchestra is still going,” he declares proudly, before rattling off a list of his numerous ‘firsts’, including SSO Sinfonia, a national mentoring programme whose first tour he led to schools in Dubbo, Orange and Bathurst. The orchestra’s popular Discovery series was another Gill innovation that ran for 16 years and saw the increasingly popular conductor greeting concert audiences with his trademark “Ladies and gentlemen! Boys and girls!”

In 1985, when the Western Australian Conservatorium of Music opened in Perth, Gill was invited to become its first Dean, a post he held for some five years before moving on to take up the role of Director of Chorus at the Australian Opera for a further six. Then, in August 2005 Gill was appointed Music Director of the new Melbourne-based Victorian Opera, another important first. “I’d pushed for it before that,” he tells me, explaining how he’d always believed that Victoria should have its own opera company. “But I did seven years and that was enough. One day the book will be written on that one. It was a very bloody chapter in musical history, I can assure you,” he laughs.

Richard Gill with members of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra

Never an easy brief, with Victorians believing that Opera Australia – then the Australian Opera – were taking over the Victoria State Opera, Gill looks back on it now rather ruefully “That’s absolutely not what happened, but they still believe it,” he says with a chuckle. “It was seen as the most dreadful act of violence from the Australian Opera, but the Victoria State Opera Company was in terrible circumstances financially.”

“It’s all on record. When I was working at Australian Opera, I could hear the Victorians saying this is a terrible season, we’re getting the B cast, the singers don’t fit on the stage, the scenery doesn’t work here etc. The negativity was spectacular. But the Victorians are always going to say that because there’s this strange thing in this country between Sydney and Melbourne. I work between those cities, and I love Melbourne, I think Melbourne’s a great city. So is Sydney. What used to upset the Victorians was when I’d say ‘I don’t know why you think about Sydney so much because Sydney doesn’t think about you.’ That just made them furious, but it’s true.”

Going at it “like a maniac”, Gill and Victorian Opera made it work, filling a niche and refusing to simply play the same stock repertoire. “Audiences loved seeing Poppea in the Melbourne Town Hall,” he reminisces. “Andrew Ford with Eddy Perfect and all that wacky stuff – people really, really loved it. But there were also people who hated it, who thought I should be doing Elixir of Love and Traviata. When we did Brian Howard’s chamber opera after Kafka’s Metamorphosis, someone in Melbourne said to me, ‘People do not want to see operas about cockroaches.’ Isn’t that hilarious? What that meant was, ‘I don’t want to see an opera about a cockroach.’”

Which segues neatly into the other important side to Richard Gill’s career: conducting. He first began waving a baton after someone invited him to helm the Sydney Youth Orchestra in the 1970s. “I said ‘why not,’” he says. “One day they asked me to go and conduct the old ABC Sinfonia in Lindfield. And then they said we think you should audition for the SSO. I thought, ‘Oh my God!’ – I was seriously a baby – but I passed. I was classed as a Grade D, suitable for schools concerts at $75 a concert. I still have the letter!”

Two conductors would influence Gill’s approach on the job: the Austrian-born Georg Tintner and Argentinian-born Italian Carlo Felice Cillario who he met at the Australian Opera. “Carlo was the real deal,” Gill explains. “He was very rude, but funny. I thought he was hilarious. He bashed me up a lot publicly, because he bashed everybody up, but he was amazing. He wasn’t great at Mozart or Wagner, but he nailed the Italian repertoire. He was also a bit crazy, which I loved, and look, Carlo knew the scores inside out. I learned a lot from him. Tintner was an obsessive. He had visions. ‘Bruckner did not want it to go like that!’ And you’d think, ‘Okay Georg, what dream did you have last night in which Bruckner gave you that information?’”

Richard Gill

Nowadays, Gill can look back with a certain satisfaction on a score sheet that shows more battles won that lost, but – apropos this 7:45am interview – there’s no suggestion of his slowing down. “Now, I’ve got results, why would I stop?” is his philosophy. Right now the most important thing for him is his National Mentoring Program, which has delivered some real, measurable results in classrooms. “I’m trying to keep my focus on that, and it’s really hard because the demands are extraordinary and there’s some loopy stuff going on now in education. Like, off the wall stuff. I may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I wasn’t born yesterday. And I know that I’m fighting for the right thing.”

Although still capable of doing a mean impression of a revolutionary on the barricades, the angry, young firebrand is perhaps giving way nowadays to a more sanguine elder statesman. “I still have moments of real anger about something,” he admits, “but now I say, ‘Okay, I can’t waste energy on this. I’ve got to go about it another way.” Not that he ever gives up. “My view is, you put the blinkers on and just go. If you’re constantly looking from side to side nothing happens. If you’re ploughing a paddock, you don’t do it with a fork. You’ve got to get out there and really get your hands dirty.”

Almost uniquely in the current arts climate, Gill does a lot of the work he does without thought of financial reward. “I’m not being paid for the mentoring programme. I do that all voluntarily,” he says. “A lot of people say that’s crazy, but it does mean I really can call the shots. It makes me a maverick and a pain in the arse to a lot of people, it’s true, but I haven’t a vested interest so I can talk to the government without fear.”

He still gets a buzz out of major wins – “like when I came out of Christopher Pyne’s office and he said he’d support the mentoring programme, that was a fabulous moment.” Seeing his grandchildren involved in music makes him happy too, though naturally he’s not pushing them. “The family makes me happy, no question about that,” he says. “Friends as well. I like being with friends.”

As he approaches his 75th, it is being that bulldozer, he says, that helps him stay on track. “I think I have a very serious chemical imbalance somewhere,” he laughs. “I probably would have been labelled ADHD or obsessive-compulsive 40 years ago. A lot of people think I’m hyperactive. But that’s what keeps me going. I do go from very high to very low, but I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve ever been really depressed, ever. That’s a circumstance that I don’t really understand. I sympathise or empathise with it, but I don’t understand. I get distressed, or frustrated and saddened by things, but I don’t think I’ve ever experienced raw depression.”

And if he could wave a magic wand and change one thing, what would it be? “I would change every state department’s view of music education and make it mandatory in every school in the country from preschool to grade six. Easy.”

Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine