Superior oral history from an irascible musical scholar
Give Me Excess of It: A Memoir
By Richard Gill Pan Macmillan, 400pp, $49.95 (HB)
IT’S difficult to imagine for whom Richard Gill has written this memoir. The Australian conductor and music educator doesn’t share gossip from the rarefied world of jetsetting celebrity artists that opera-goers love; in fact, we’re on page 136 before we get a passing mention of Joan Sutherland and some high-powered Germans. Nor does he dig into the nitty-gritty of musical appreciation, though this apparently is what he has spent his adult life trying to drag the philistines around him into confronting and considering.
The usual endless lists of dates, repertoire and artists — Sutherland’s autobiography was an eye-glazingly memorable example of this — are mercifully absent, too, at least as Gill gets on in life when the names might have meant something: when he conducted on Opera Australia’s main stages, say, or ran OzOpera, or advised Musica Viva’s schools program or, most recently, headed up Victorian Opera. Instead he reserves this kind of detail for the people he loved and hated in school, and while teaching in high schools and conservatoriums right across this wide brown land (he likes that kind of tried and true phrase).
Does it sound boring? It’s not. Gill has achieved a kind of superior oral history: wellwritten and well-paced, if not dazzling, and containing all kinds of apercus about Austra- lian social and cultural life during his 70 years in it. His childhood, spent under the formidable gaze of his mother, Lydia, and in the educational clutches of cruel and incompetent Catholic brothers, is illuminatingly nostalgic. All the names are Irish or English, and not even the odd fellow-travelling Italian pops up. The cane is administered so constantly and cripplingly that it becomes routine, though young Richard suffers cruelly from every application.
Which is surprising because he seems to have belonged to a layabout gang of boys who were neither swots nor saints, as an amusing run of episodes, such as the amassing of sand crabs for release on a crowded peak-hour train, portray. You’d have thought such boys would have taken the cuts in their stride, even bragged about them. Gill saves that for the metaphoric cuts he received later in life.
There are strange gaps in the story. Although it is essentially about his career in music, his mother figures much more colourfully than his wife, for example, the woman who saw him through it, taking up the family slack, as he admits, when music made him obsessive and largely absent.
There are also strange emphases. Gill spent years attached to, or freelancing for, Opera Australia, in education and administration as well as conducting performances across the country. In the book, he devotes considerable energy — and venom — to describing behindthe-scenes bitchery in the staging of the opera Lindy, but hardly any to the so-called merger of Opera Australia and Victoria State Opera, which convulsed opera-lovers in Australia’s two major metropolises for years. And he devotes no space to the acrimonious and public split between Opera Australia and flamboyant conductor Simone Young. (Disclosure: Gill describes this reviewer’s journalism in flattering terms . . . before misquoting it.)
Gill has been a journeyman conductor: very good, but unexceptionable, no less than one would expect from a company of Opera Australia’s stature. His career as an educator seems to have been rocky and he is attractively unsparing of self-criticism as he traces through feuds and flashpoints in various institutions.
Where Gill has made a strong public contribution, however, is as an educator of those philistine masses. His didactic delivery, with its theatrical pauses and arrhythmic stresses, is well known to anyone who listens to classical music and opera, on radio or live. It sometimes grates and he often seems to patronise, but he always sheds light on the music.
The voice in this book will be familiar to those in the know. Gill goes on about the dreadful effects of religious education on young minds and about the relentless dumbing down of school curriculums, he drops the odd four-letter word, and gets worked up recounting something terrible that happened to him 40 years ago. (He has a prodigious memory for detail, even of his childhood, and doesn’t refer to keeping a diary anywhere along the way.) But like the irascible but scholarly uncle you encounter at Christmas dinner, he will leave you with all sorts of ideas to be going on with after the harrumphing is over.
Richard Gill allows strange gaps in his story