Australian violinist Charmian Gadd has had an extraordinary career on multiple continents.
After shooting to stardom as a teenager through the ABC’s Young Australian Performer competitions, she spent many years touring and winning countless awards at competitions around the world. In the late 1960s, based in London, she played in the Bath Festival Orchestra with Yehudi Menuhin and St Martins in the Field with Neville Marriner, and recorded for the BBC. After marrying Richard Goldner they moved to the USA, where Gadd would become Associate Professor at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, and later Associate Professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham.
Returning home to Australia in 1988, Gadd became Head of the String Department at the Canberra School of Music before moving to Sydney in 1990 to hold the same position at the Conservatorium of Music. She was a founding member of the Macquarie Trio in Australia in the 1990s, and served as the Artistic Director of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville.
In retirement on the Central Coast, she established a series of concerts as “Charmian and Friends” and still performs regularly as soloist and chamber musician. On the cusp of her 80th birthday, she penned this reflection on her career for Limelight.
As I come of age (I am turning 80 in January 2022) I find that a lot of history has happened on my watch. I would like to share a slice of my reminiscences of the ABC with long-time listeners and supporters of that incredibly valuable institution, which I fear we tend to take for granted.
Having lived a substantial portion of those eight decades in the USA, which lacks anything comparable, I have learned its value and enjoyed the cultural bounty that has been offered to Australian artists and audiences.
From the first time in the 1950s when the ABC broadcast one of my childhood compositions through Terence Hunt’s weekly program to the schools until 1963 when I won the Concerto and Vocal Competition, I have assembled a rich history of stories.
I was born in 1942 in Ourimbah on the NSW Central Coast. We were the first settlers on a fifty-acre patch of bushland, which meant my parents had by law to clear five of those acres as the government of the time was committed to clearing the land. That meant cutting down trees by axe and crosscut saw, transporting them with the help of our draught horse, Ben, up to the makeshift saw bench my father had built from a tractor engine. The stumps were then blown out with gelignite, a dangerous explosive that had shortened the lives of several locals.
Then they were milled to size to build the house. With no training my father and uncle Bert built the dwelling, which was intended as a temporary place. It is still standing and has withstood bushfires and storms. They also built a second house for my father’s parents who had lost their property during the Great Depression, unable to pay their council rates. They were evicted from their home by Wyong Council!
So, times were tough. The depression still endured in the Central Coast and there were no jobs. I will present you with a litany of what else we didn’t have which always amazes the young of today. We had no electricity, no telephone, no water or sewerage, no garbage service, no public transport and of course no money!
Television was decades into the future, mobile phones not even dreamed of, but we did have a radio. A radio and a phonograph, that ancient device which you wound up and with the application of a sharp needle in a groove would play several minutes of a 78 record. With my nimble little fingers, I had the privilege of changing those needles. Thus was I introduced to the great musical heritage that has inspired my life.
Given that the year of my birth was right in the middle of the World War the main news from the ABC would have been Churchill’s great “fight them on the beaches” exhortations and dreadful reports of deaths of our soldiers in unpronounceable fields in France.
But there was also music. There was an ABC weekly magazine that was a bible to us as we planned our listening. The radio ran on a car battery, and we were careful not to flatten it too recklessly. Dr Floyd’s Music Lover’s Hour, concerts by touring artists, several of whom became my heroes – Bronislav Huberman and Ginette Neveu, Yehudi Menuhin, Jascha Heifetz, and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. They were more than just my heroes. As an only child growing up in the bush with no playmates for miles, these great artists became my personal friends. I knew them by their first names and would talk to them as part of my family.
We had several advantages though. Some musician friends who had been studying at the Conservatorium when war broke out! They were conscripted and sent off to kill Germans and fortunately survived to be admitted as “rehab” students at the Con. They were released from the army with their rifles and uniforms. There was not much call for these items in Turramurra or Croydon where they lived so they left them at our place and came up regularly for holidays to shoot rabbits, of which we had a plague. They brought their instruments and played string quartets. I have fond memories of them disappearing into parts of the farm to practise their scales and even walking along the road with their rifles on their backs dressed in their army uniforms practising. Cars were rare on the dirt road but when they did drive by and encounter this phenomenon it contributed to our family reputation as being a little strange!
My mother, under the occasional tutelage of these rabbit shooters, put me for regular exams and entered me in the great City of Sydney Eisteddfod. When I was eight years old, I won the second prize in the eight years section and first in the sixteen and under. She knew she had to get me a proper teacher and this led me to the Conservatorium High School in 1954.
Terence Hunt and the Education department still played a part in my life, as the staff there took a special interest in the nearby high school and conducted the choir. Later on, Marilyn Richardson and I became regular demonstrators on the broadcast to the schools.
From high school onwards the main part played by the ABC in my life was the Young Australia broadcasts and the Concerto and Vocal Competition. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra gave youth concerts and Sir Bernard Heinze introduced the orchestra to children in a wonderful series. We Con students were often privileged to listen to rehearsals with the visiting soloists. It was a time of enriching experiences for which I am appreciative and grateful.
When I was sixteen, I reached the state final of the Concerto and Vocal Competition and had the joy and shock of playing the Sibelius Concerto with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Henry Krips. It was a wonderful time for the Orchestra with Ernest Llewellyn as Concertmaster and Robert Pikler as principal violist, John Painter and Lois Simpson the first desk of celli, all people with whom I formed friendships and worked happily with later on.
They were gods to me then. The shock of playing with the orchestra is hard to describe. I just wanted to turn around and listen to them but was soon chastised for that. The experienced Krips was a fine and demanding teacher during the two rehearsals and run through with the orchestra on the day of the performance. I had to get used to the sounds coming from all sorts of places behind me. I confess I did turn towards the viola solo, though, and responded to Robert Pikler’s extraordinary playing. In all the maybe hundred times I played it later, here and overseas I never heard it as beautiful!
In 1963 I won the Competition final. This was in the Melbourne Town Hall. I was playing the Tchaikovsky Concerto and wearing a red satin flared shirt made for me by the violist in my Younger Group Musica Viva string quartet, Merle Berriman. Merle was a much-respected teacher in some of Sydney’s high schools and shortly afterwards married Roger Covell, the music critic and Professor at the University of NSW, who was ultimately responsible for placing the Australia Ensemble there.
Merle and I are still friends. As the finalists were all assembling behind stage prior to walking onstage and hearing the results, a very nerve-racking moment I gave a great sneeze which dislodged the fastener of the skirt. There was a sudden panic and a search for a safety pin or something to prevent it slipping to the ground. Now that would have been memorable! Someone, I think it must have been Allynne Tilsed (who also remains a friend to this day) produced a small object which would perhaps do the trick and we marched on stage with me clutching my left side.
Of course, I won and had to sidle up to the front of the stage and shake a plethora of hands while holding my waistband in place with the left! That is about all I remember of the event that meant so much to my career.
It was a marvellous competition to win in those days because it carried with it many performances, tours and experience playing with orchestra. By the time I got under management in London and was sent on tours where you had one rehearsal on the morning of the performance, I had that crucial experience under my belt thanks to the ABC.
A word on some of the ABC events that affected our Culture.
In December 1945 Richard Goldner was to present the first Musica Viva concert. Rehearsals had gone on for months with a group of top Sydney players and a challenging and world-class program had been selected. It was to be at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and excitement was building until it was announced that there was to be a total blackout.
So soon after the war there were unpredictable power outages. Richard was devastated but being a resourceful refugee remembered his friend in the ABC, Sir Charles Moses, who was an Army man. Sir Charles sprang to the challenge providing an Army generator to light the stands of the players. Car headlights illuminated the entry of the hall and beautiful girls with flashlights showed patrons to their seats. It proved to be a memorably romantic start for Musica Viva.
Sir Charles himself would demand a chapter of his own. Tall, blonde, handsome and distinguished, he cut a perfect figure for the time as the head of the ABC. He was a real Aussie hero. I would have love to have been a fly on the tarmac as he greeted a famous visiting pianist at the airport who extended his hand and introduced himself as “Solomon”.
“Moses” replied Sir Charles, shaking the proffered hand.
Another cherished story is very Aussie. He was a champion axeman. In his office at the ABC he kept his axe and to demonstrate how sharp it was he would shave the hairs on his arm. Try that sometime, Ita!
Charmian Gadd and Friends were to celebrate Charmian’s ‘coming of age’ with a concert on 9 January 2022. This concert has been postponed, but visit the Central Coast Conservatorium website for updates.