While Richard Gill’s Birthday Bash at City Recital Hall was a joyous celebration, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s memorial, Richard Gill: Celebration of a Life was a ceremonial and profoundly moving reflection on the life of the beloved conductor and music educator, the orchestra joined by the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, Sydney Chamber Choir and Conservatorium High School Chamber Choir.

Opening with a beautiful and personal welcome to country by Auntie Delmae Barton and her son, didjeridu player William Barton, the concert alternated speakers and music.

Gill’s children Claire and Anthony Gill had the audience roaring with laughter – often through tears – as they touchingly described a domestic Richard Gill every bit as passionate, quirky and characterful as his public persona. “Life with Dad was never dull,” as Claire Gill put it.

Richard Gill, Sydney Symphony OrchestraRichard Gill (1941 – 2018). Photo © Brendan Read

The Sydney Chamber Choir, conducted by Sam Allchurch, gave glimmering performances of Ross Edwards’ Fluxit labor diei and James MacMillan’s Lux aeterna, while the Conservatorium High School Chamber Choir sung Carissimi’s Plorate filii Israel from Jephte, conducted by Réka Csernyik. The SSO performed the Adagietto slow movement from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, conducted by Nicholas Carter, while the three choirs combined for the Priests’ Chorus from Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine from JS Bach’s St John Passion.

Sir Jonathan Mills AO, John Bell AO OBE, Adrian Collette AM and Mary Vallentine AO all gave speeches, paying tribute to Gill’s memory and legacy, reinforcing his incredibly far-flung influence on Australia’s musical and cultural life – from organisations he led or founded, to new operas commissioned and premiered – and remembering his personal kindness and passion. Throughout, tribute was paid to Maureen Gill, Richard’s wife. “On behalf of all Richard’s many friends and fans, may we particularly thank you Maureen for the love and care you gave Richard at home in Stanmore, where he was able to hold court in the final weeks of his truly exceptional life,” Mills said.

This concert, curated in consultation with Gill’s family and his lifelong friend Kim Williams, was a truly moving experience. The musical numbers became meditations on the thoughts of the speakers, in what was a beautifully crafted and fitting ‘service’ for a man who claimed Johann Sebastian Bach as his god. In keeping with Gill’s passion for choral singing, the entire Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House took part in the final number, Hubert Parry’s hymn Jerusalem.

“As we know, a few hours before he died, a flash band organised by Paul Goodchild gathered outside Richard’s house,” Vallentine said. “70 musicians turned up to celebrate a great life by playing the theme from The Dam Busters. There’s some controversy whether this was, as claimed, Richard’s favourite piece of music. Who would know what that was? He seemed to slumber through the performance, but his eyes flickered to life as vigorous applause followed. He loved applause and he loved a full house.”

Like the concert at City Recital Hall, tickets had disappeared quickly for Richard Gill: Celebration of a Life – “I think every music teacher in Sydney is here,” one audience member exclaimed as she waved to a friend across the Concert Hall before the concert began – and even more watched and listened across the country through ABC Classic FM’s live broadcast and the SSO’s live stream. Here again, the standing ovation from the full house audience was sustained and deeply heartfelt.

Watch Richard Gill: Celebration of a Life here