A notable first in Australia’s orchestral scene quietly slipped under the radar just days ago. When Anthony Pratt strode onto the podium earlier this month to conduct the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, it was the first time a business person has conducted one of this country’s main city orchestras.
Pratt, who is better known as king of packaging and paper company Visy Industries, conducted just the one piece in the MSO’s ‘Classical hits and other bits!’ program in which he otherwise took on the role of executive producer. Benjamin Northey assumed conducting duties for the rest of the program. “The consensus among the VIP guests at the after-show drinks was that Classical Hits was a triumph,” reported The Australian.
Pratt’s journey to the podium began in 2004, when he won a raffle to conduct the Atlanta Philharmonic Orchestra, and it looks as if the bug has bitten. His story is not without precedent, however. In 1998, a Korean management consultant, T. W. Kang, conducted the Korean Symphony Orchestra, and before that the millionaire businessman on Wall Street, Gilbert Kaplan, made a name for himself conducting Mahler’s Second Symphony with more than 50 orchestras worldwide.
Kaplan, who could conduct this work from memory and charged no fee for his performances, went on to conduct this one work with the Vienna Philharmonic, London Philharmonic, Moscow Symphony Orchestra, Israel Philharmonic and Los Angeles Philharmonic. Extraordinarily, his recording of the Second with the LSO was described as “the best-selling Mahler recording ever”. Yet he always remained, in his own words, an amateur “in the best sense of the word”.
“I didn’t set out to do it because I had some grandiose ambition to be a conductor”; “I did it because I wanted to get inside the music,” Kaplan told The Age in 1993. “There’s a real explanation of life and death in that music and I wanted to get to the bottom of it.”
Kaplan died last year. Edward Heath, UK Prime Minister from 1970 to 1974, was another noted amateur conducting enthusiast. During his time in office he led the London Symphony Orchestra in gala concerts and even on one occasion directed the Berlin Philharmonic at the invitation of Herbert von Karajan.
Long may such adventures continue. Many may decry it as amateurism or a billionaire’s fantasy of buying one’s way onto the podium, but it can only add life and interest to the concert stage.