Richard Gill AO: Celebration of a life

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Published: 25th February, 2019

Hamer Hall was full. So many friends and admirers wanted to share this opportunity to celebrate the life and legacy of a man who had given so freely of himself and to mourn his all-too-early death from cancer last October at the age of 76. It seemed that virtually every organization in Australia associated with music and education has been the grateful beneficiary of the force of nature that was Richard Gill.

The quote from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night projected onto the screen at the beginning of the tribute summed up his attitude to music:

“If music be the food of love, play on/ Give me excess of it”

My copy of his memoir, which uses the last four words as its title, has somehow disappeared; I was so excited and inspired by the passionate way he wrote about life and music that I was determined to share his insights with as many people as possible, urging “Here, you must read this!” As an academic teacher at the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School, I had the privilege of witnessing him in action with VCASS students – informing, encouraging, energising and generally whipping them into shape in the most generous way possible. He even had the gift of turning what could be a sombre triennial review panel into something exhilarating. He was utterly serious about furthering music education, but his commitment came with an imaginative panache that made tackling even a Herculean task seem like fun. Optimism and determination generated belief.

There were many personal anecdotes from people who worked with Gill in a range of roles. Claire Spencer, CEO of Arts Centre Melbourne opened proceedings to speak about how he regarded music as the summit of mankind’s achievement. As Premier of Victoria when the state’s opera company was being re-established after a ten-year gap, Steve Bracks spoke about Gill’s role as its first Artistic Director and his belief that music was for everyone. Under the capable baton of Daniel Carter, Orchestra Victoria accompanied Jacqueline Porter as Pamina and Samuel Dundas as Papageno in an appealing duet from The Magic Flute. This was followed by a stirring rendition of Va, pensiero from Verdi’s Nabucco from the Victorian Opera Chorus.

An emotional Nicole van Bruggen gave a moving account of her relationship with Gill as they set up the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra with Rachael Beesley. She spoke of his wish to “establish an army of generals” where everybody got to have their say and learned from each other. Amidst the tears there were amusing anecdotes, one describing how Gill would tell rowdy eight-year olds to stop talking and listen, advising them, “If you cannot listen, you will miss out – forever!”. ARCO then played Two Elegiac Melodies by Grieg with Porter as featured soprano in the second piece.

Colin Cornish, CEO of the Australian Youth Orchestra, spoke about Gills’ connection with the orchestra, his passion for music education, and setting up the Sydney Sinfonia. Again, the emphasis was on inclusion: “Music education should be available to every child – so let’s get on with it”. It should not be “relegated to some global bottom drawer”. Members of AYO, taking time out from their exceptional contribution to Victorian Opera’s production of Parsifal, played the Allegretto from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.

This was followed by a video of Gill speaking about the importance of music education and footage from the National Music Teacher Mentoring Scheme, which Gill believed was fundamental to bringing music into the lives of everybody. He insisted that children should be able to hear, read, make and compose music and that teachers should be taught how to help them do it. This initiative is likely to be his most important and enduring legacy.

Two movements of Dvořák’s Wind Serenade were played by musicians, faculty and alumni from the Australian National Academy of Music, where an indefatigable Gill continued flying down from Sydney to conduct memorable and usually hilarious choir sessions even when he was extremely ill.

Many lovers of classical music will remember Gill mainly from his Ears Wide Open concerts with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. MSO cellist Rohan de Korte gave an extremely touching description of Gill’s relationship with the MSO, reading a letter of appreciation from members of the orchestra when Gill was too ill to fulfill his MSO commitments and his gracious reply in which he wrote about how heart-broken he was at having to miss conducting Prelude à l’après-midi d’un faune. It goes some way to explain why the MSO’s playing of this piece last year was so very special – and beautifully played on this occasion with Benjamin Northey conducting.

The final speakers were Anthony and Claire Gill, who spoke about their father in the most loving terms while giving a very clear account of the challenges of having such an irrepressible dynamo as a father.

It would not have been a proper celebration of Richard Gill’s life without everybody being invited to sing. What could be more appropriate than Hubert Parry’s Jerusalem? It is probably the best known and most loved of all choral songs – one of the great tunes married to William Blake’s stirring words of aspiration and determination. This was not a case of the VO Chorus leading while others murmured along; the lusty (and tuneful) singing that rang forth from the auditorium was an affirmation of what Richard Gill stood for.

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Heather Leviston attended Richard Gill AO: Celebration of a life at Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall on February 21, 2019