Su­pe­rior oral his­tory from an iras­ci­ble mu­si­cal scholar

Give Me Ex­cess of It: A Mem­oir

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Miriam Cosic Miriam Cosic

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

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