Stuart Challender AO 1947-1991
The greatest conductor that this country has produced was born in Hobart, Tasmania, on 19 February 1947.
Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony sealed his fate: he would be a conductor.
At 17 this passion took him to the Melbourne University Conservatorium.
‘I liked being best at something’
‘Being on stage with Stuart Challender was like being close to a flame,’ said Sydney Symphony Orchestra Concert Master Donald Hazelwood at the celebration of the conductor’s life at the Sydney Town Hall on 20 December 1991. ‘Making music was so important to him. To convey that ideal to the orchestra, and through it, to the audience, was all-consuming. Challender had led the SSO in a golden period and had given it the impetus to continue forward and upward.’ But it wasn’t always easy: ‘After he became chief conductor in 1987, he reorganised our performance schedules, so when he came into the rehearsal room, he felt in a position to make demands, and he did. “Please do not practise your parts at rehearsal,” he would tell us.’
The greatest conductor that this country has produced was born in Hobart, Tasmania, on 19 February 1947. His passion for music did not come from his parents; his father was a football fanatic, and was disappointed when his son showed no aptitude for sport of any kind. Challender’s interest in music was triggered by his grandmother, Thelma Driscoll, who used to sing to him as she pushed him around in his pram.
The turning point came when he was 13. Uncharacteristically, his father took him to a concert. Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony sealed his fate: he would be a conductor. He borrowed scores and records from the local library, learnt the piano and the clarinet, and spent every spare minute listening to classical music on the radio.
‘I liked being best at something,’ he reminisced. ‘I wasn’t very good at sport, and I was under a bit of pressure to succeed at something. So I developed a passion for music.’
At 17 this passion took him to the Melbourne University Conservatorium. The Conservatorium had no conducting course, so Challender developed his skills with local amateur music makers. From 1966 he worked with the then amateur Victorian Opera, playing in the orchestra, rehearsing the chorus and undertaking odd backstage jobs. In September 1967 he was assistant conductor for The Tales of Hoffmann at the Palais Theatre. By 1968 he had graduated from the Conservatorium and was the Victorian Opera Company’s music director.
Inevitably, Challender went to Europe. ‘It was like starting again,’ he said.
Peter Burch: ‘A man of immense personal and musical integrity’, in Opera Australia, February 1992
Peter Cochrane: ‘Final applause for a man who liked a good gig’, in The Sydney Morning Herald, 21 December 1991
Anthony Fogg: ‘Stuart Challender’ – notes accompanying ABC Classics CD 434778
Marianne Rigby: ‘Stuart Challender’, in The Oxford Companion to Australian Music, Oxford University Press, 1997
Phillip Sametz: Play On! – Sixty Years of Music Making with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, ABC Books, 1992
Michael Shmith: ‘Music poorer for Challender’s death,’ in The Age, 14 December 1991