A few quiet sobs filtered through the auditorium at City Recital Hall during Sydney Brass’s refulgent performance of Giovanni Gabrieli’s Sonata XX à 22. They were soon drowned out by the blaze of brass, however, in what had originally been planned as Richard Gill’s Birthday Bash, but became a moving celebration of the beloved conductor and educator’s life, following his death on October 28, a week shy of his 77th birthday.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Associate Principal Trumpet Paul Goodchild led the brass ensemble, arrayed across the Recital Hall stage, in what was to be one of only a few truly elegiac pieces of music on the program. Goodchild, a long-time friend and colleague of Gill’s, was responsible for the brass flash mob that erupted outside the conductor’s house on Saturday to perform the Dam Busters March, but here he paid a more solemn tribute, drawing on his and Gill’s shared love of 16th-century composer Gabrieli.

Celebrating Richard GillThe Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra quintet. Photo © Nick Gilbert

There were moments of sadness – there were few dry eyes in the house during the Larghetto of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, performed by musicians from Gill’s period band, the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra, with Nicole van Bruggen on basset clarinet – but despite the poignancy of the event, it stayed true to its initial remit: a birthday celebration which, instead of being streamed to Gill at his home, was streamed across the country.

Celebrating Richard Gill was put together by the organisations and ensembles with whom Gill worked closely in his final years, and tickets sold out fast. Leigh Sales took a night off from the ABC’s 7.30 to be Master of Ceremonies, striking a perfect tone as she introduced the artists, read out a selection of birthday messages, and reflected on the life and career of a man who reached so many across the music industry and the country.

Celebrating Richard GillLeigh Sales. Photo © Nick Gilbert

The singers of the Sydney Chamber Choir, led by Music Director elect Sam Allchurch, paid tribute to their former Music Director with James MacMillan’s powerful Data Est Mihi Omnis Potestas, Dan Walker’s gently haunting Yúya Karrabúra and Ross Edwards’ short but joyful Ab Estatis Foribus.

The voice of Gill himself was heard in a video presentation from the National Music Teacher Mentoring Program, a program designed to give primary school teachers the tools to build their confidence and skills in teaching music, while two ensembles – Tigramuna (who combine Latin American music with jazz) and Zeeko (who led the audience in the environmentally conscious call-and-response piece The Last Wave of the Golden Frog) – represented the Musica Viva in Schools program.

School students, dressed in their various school uniforms, joined with musicians from the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra as the Young Mannheim Symphonists, ARCO’s young artists program, in a performance of the first movement from Beethoven’s First Symphony, led by Rachael Beesley. This was a remarkable performance from musicians so young, the string section taut and the wind players handling their very exposed lines with aplomb.

Celebrating Richard GillFlash mob choir at Celebrating Richard Gill. Photo © Nick Gilbert

The concert’s finale was O Fortuna from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana (or ‘Caramel Bananas’, Sales informed us Gill had dubbed it), performed by a combined choir from the Arts Unit of NSW and Santa Sabina College, accompanied by two pianos and percussion. The rousing, well-known music – which mentors training for the National Music Teaching Mentoring Program in Hobart last year will remember singing with Gill – became the music for a choral flash mob, Allchurch leading the audience in the medieval Latin lyrics, a nod to Gill’s passionate belief that music is for all.

City Recital Hall was packed to the rafters – and more will have taken part in the celebration online – and it’s a testament to the love and affection held for Gill that the SSO’s tribute concert on Saturday also sold out almost immediately (there is a waitlist, and that concert will also be streamed online).

A minute’s silence hardly seems adequate for such a passionate and outspoken advocate for music – instead the audience last night gave a sustained and heartfelt standing ovation.


Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine