A new biography of Stuart Challender by Melbourne-born and Queensland – based author, Richard Davis, offers the first fully detailed account of arguably the most outstanding conductor Australia has produced. Close to the Flame: the Life of Stuart Challender (Wakefield Press, 2017) is a meticulously documented and interestingly written book that sheds much new light on a celebrated individual whose career was cut tragically short following his battle with AIDS but who strenuously tried to keep his private life out of public view.
Davis does not set his sights at analysing the mind of the musician or offering much by way of personal assessment, and there is room for another book to do this. But what he does do is relate in wonderful detail each stage of Challender’s career via the voices of numerous colleagues, media commentators and concert reviewers of the time. Davis interviewed such figures as Joan Carden, June Challender (Stuart’s mother), Trevor Green, Donald Hazelwood, David Marr, Moffat Oxenbould, Mary Vallentine and Marilyn Zschau (an American soprano with whom he shared an early romance) in writing the book. Their words present rich insights into Australia’s artistic elite in the 70s and 80s.
What we learn about Challender himself is more valuable though: for instance that he could play “the grand and unapproachable maestro” but was in real life “a humble and conscientious artisan”, and that he had a lifelong interest in Zen Buddhism. At one point Davis does postulate that the maestro’s occasional loss of confidence in his capability as a conductor was due to his repressed homosexuality, and this rings true as one reads the book.
Also interesting are Challender’s remarks on a range of subjects, quoted halfway through. These include his views on conducting (“The art of conducting is the art of the upbeat”), contemporary music (“People decide they don’t like it even before they’ve heard it”), popular music (“I have great respect for some of these pop musicians”), and performing on period instruments (“any honest musician will tell you that we know very little about how music was played hundreds of years ago”). Much of what he said continues to hold emphatic relevance today.
Davis quotes an epitaph offered by Donald Hazelwood, erstwhile concertmaster of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra: “Being on stage with Stuart Challender was like being close to a hot flame”. It is a picture that is amplified abundantly in this welcome book.