Close to the Flame: The life of Stuart Challender

by Mark Isaacs

Author: Richard Davis
Wakefield Press, 2017. 229pp.
ISBN 978 174305 456 7 (hardback)
Reviewed by Mark Isaacs

The great Australian conductor Stuart Challender died in 1991, and as the author of this first fully-detailed account of his life writes in the biography’s Prelude, there was at the time of writing “the apparent danger of Stuart ‘slipping off the radar’ if his story was not soon told; of him being consigned to a footnote in history, remembered only by a few grey-haired concert- and opera-goers for whom he had once been a beacon, by a handful of aging colleagues and friends who shared his successes and his trials, and by the Australian gay community for whom he became, briefly, a reluctant hero.”

Indeed, we live in interesting times, when memories (like attention spans) are palpably truncated and there exists something of an endemic tendency in our educational and other institutions to be insufficiently comprehensive in surveying the deep legacy of Australian artists (a “cultural amnesia” in the words of Walkley Award-winning arts journalist John Shand). Therefore, this book is long overdue as a contributing antidote to the general malaise on that score, and is written with polish and flair by an internationally-acclaimed Australian writer specialising in biographies of musicians.

One of the most remarkable insights gained from the book is that Challender truly was born to conduct. Most conductors turn to the discipline seriously in their undergraduate years at the earliest. Child and teenage musical prodigies almost always reveal themselves with a primary focus as instrumentalists, vocalists or, more rarely, composers. Even Leonard Bernstein saw himself primarily as a pianist and composer in his teenage and early undergraduate years at Harvard, and it was not until a legendary mentor informed him imperiously that he was to be a conductor – a suggestion initially met with incredulity – that he took to the podium.

In Challender’s case, he determined his path to be that of a conductor at the tender age of fourteen while attending a concert by the (then) Tasmanian Orchestra conducted by the Hungarian-born Tibor Paul. By age fifteen he had assembled a “scratch orchestra” for his own public conducting debut at Wesley Hall, Hobart; a singularly precocious feat by any account. He maintained an interest in composition for some years (though none of his scores survive) and was an accomplished clarinettist and pianist.

Challender knew he had to get out of Hobart, and his undergraduate musical studies were in Melbourne (where he was appointed musical director of the Victorian Opera Company) followed by postgraduate studies at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Hamburg. He went on to conduct professionally in Europe, though not at the higher echelons of distinction. Returning to Australia in 1980, high-level appointments followed such as to the Australian Opera and, most notably, as Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

One of the distinct themes that emerges from the book is how much Challender’s great promise was cut short by his premature death at the age of forty-four. It details his very successful debuts, in the last two years of his life, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and we are well-justified in speculating as to what he might have achieved on the world stage had he lived longer. At the very least, his international reputation could have ended up comparable to those of Sir Charles Mackerras before him and Simone Young after him.

However, Challender was indeed a star in Australia. Aside from Sir Charles Mackerras, he is the only Australian Chief Conductor that the Sydney Symphony Orchestra has had in its history, and he shepherded the orchestra through some landmark times, including its 1988 Australian Bicentenary tour of the United States. At the end of his life Challender also became something of a household name in Australia due to his battle with AIDS – the illness that took him – by virtue of his great courage in persisting on the podium in the face of acute and debilitating infirmity and his candour (largely by implication) about his homosexuality in an era when this was still far from common.

The biography is successful in giving us a distinct feeling for a most complex and rich life. It is assuredly not hagiographic, and goes some way to revealing Challender’s faults. We learn of his social awkwardness, his “troubled, confused and fragile psyche” and these neurotic tendencies are understandably linked in part to his having grown up gay in Tasmania, by far the most regressive State on that issue at that time.

There are throughout frequent oblique references to Challender being at many times terribly difficult to work with; indeed it is implied that he could be singularly obnoxious. However, scant examples of this type of behaviour are actually given. This may imply some reticence on the part of interviewees for the book to speak in any way ill of him, or reluctance of the author to persist in his enquiries or reveal what might have been imparted, and it is overall perhaps the only weakness of the biography. Strangely, the author cites, as an example of Challender’s arrogance, a letter he wrote home to his parents while studying and conducting in Europe as a young man, in which Challender gives himself an unashamedly good review of his work at one of his concerts. This is hardly a good example: a young person privately recounting career achievements enthusiastically to parents in a letter from afar is surely not unusual enough to be deemed particularly boastful; it is commonplace and eminently understandable.

On the other hand, there are frequent and welcome accounts of Challender’s generosity of spirit and the deep affection in which he was held by friends and colleagues, though we are told that the friends often had to exercise forbearance to achieve this (again, what underpinned this forbearance is rarely revealed). There are insights into Challender’s interests, which included Zen Buddhism and gastronomy. He lived alone all his adult life and as well as male friends and lovers, enjoyed very close friendships with women, most notably his agent Virginia Braden and with Mary Vallentine, then Managing Director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. There was also an early romantic relationship with a woman, the American soprano Marilyn Zschau, a connection which persisted throughout his life when she became ultimately a very close friend and something of a mentor for him.

The biography is thoroughly researched and its sources are comprehensive and distinguished. As well as those mentioned earlier, they include composer Carl Vine (who writes the foreword), Anthony Fogg (distinguished music administrator in Australia and now the USA) and, notably, author and journalist David Marr who presented an ABC TV Four Corners program devoted to Challender and his end-of-life health travails which carried the candid and edgy double entendre of a title The Big Finish. It was a remark of Sydney Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster Donald Hazelwood in that program – that working with Challender was like being “close to the flame” – which gave the biography its title.

Challender’s commitment to Australian composers, and to contemporary classical music, emerges strongly. He championed, indeed encouraged, the symphonies of the young Carl Vine, as well as works by Sculthorpe, Meale, Edwards and others. He also found time to be for a while Artistic Director of the Seymour Group in Sydney, which specialised in contemporary music.

The biography is aimed at a more general readership, and though we learn much about the repertoire Challender conducted and his overall stage presence and style, there are few insights into the core musical and technical aspects of his conducting and interpretations beyond the fact that he was highly passionate, charismatic and supremely committed on the podium. We do learn that he had a musical blind spot in that he was not adept at conducting complex rhythms such as those found in Stravinsky’s Petrushka.

Having myself not seen Challender conduct for nearly thirty years, I naturally turned to YouTube in the course of writing this review. Watching him conduct the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in Shotakovich Symphony No. 5, while being struck by all the qualities noted by the author, it was supremely evident to me how clear his direction itself was. There was never any doubt about what he meant, and where he intended events to start and finish. Everything was comprehensively prepared in his body language, which the players needed to only read like a book. This quality can be occasionally lacking even in the most famous of conductors, and it is easy to see why he was adored and so very well respected by the players of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

Challender’s conducting was a treat for both audiences and musicians, and it engendered some extraordinarily deep music-making that without a doubt should not be forgotten, and that forms a proud part of Australia’s cultural legacy. This biography should go a very long way toward assuring and cementing into our psyches the vitality and power of Stuart Challender’s monumental body of work.

This article was first published here.