Patrick Thomas
Graeme Skinner
And curator of Australharmony

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POST 1 JUNE 2014

Patrick Thomas, Australian master

In 2011, ABC CLASSICS finally released a long-planned set of recordings by this Australian master conductor. At the prompting of a mutual friend Len Amadio, Patrick asked whether I could write the booklet essay, backgrounding his career and circumstances under which the recordings were made. I was delighted to do this, and reproduce what I wrote here on my website in the hope that it might encourage readers to dip into Patrick Thomas’s recorded legacy …

Get the CD set details from ABC Shop Online or from Buywell Classics

Meanwhile, here’s my booklet essay …

On 1 July 1932, the ABC was legislated into existence. No other institution would have so great an impact on the course of Australian classical music in the mid-20th century. In the early 1930s, commercial recordings had not yet supplanted live performances as the major source of music broadcast on what was then known as ‘the wireless’. As envisaged by the Scullin and Lyons federal governments, the publicly funded Australian Broadcasting Commission (later Corporation) was to manage its own radio orchestras, as well as choruses, and military and dance bands.

The orchestras it went on to develop, with the assistance of state governments, into the nation’s six major symphony orchestras, one based in each of the Australian state capital cities. Though founded as radio orchestras, these six were to be geared increasingly to concert performance. For the remainder of the century, the ABC would oversee the contracting, hiring, and sometimes failing to rehire, not only of most of Australia’s concert musicians, but also its recitalists, soloists and conductors. The organisation’s back-room bureaucrats, not always guided by musical considerations, exercised enormous power over the lives and careers of the thousands of professional musicians in its permanent and casual employ. When finally, well into the first decade of the 2000s, the ABC relinquished its control and the six orchestras gained their independence, it was the end of an era in Australian music.

The greatest musical legacy of the 20th-century ABC was a strong orchestral culture, among both rank-and-file musicians and audiences. But with its reliance on imported international concert artists, the organisation was less successful in supporting Australian soloists and orchestral conductors. Notably, beyond Bernard Heinze, Percy Code, Clive Douglas, and Joseph Post in mid-century, it would support relatively few Australian-born musicians in carrying on continuous careers as professional conductors.

An exception was, by neat coincidence, born exactly one month before the ABC itself, in Brisbane, on 1 June 1932. As he himself has acknowledged, Patrick Thomas’s more or less continuous working relationship with the ABC over a period of more than 40 years is a testament to both the organisation’s successes, and its shortcomings. On the one hand, as evidenced in this fine collection of recordings from the 1970s and 1980s, his association with the broadcast organisation allowed him almost unprecedented opportunities for personal and professional development and achievement. On the other, its adoption of him as its principal Australian-born in-house conductor for much of the same period proved to be a two-edged sword, tending to limit his musical repertoire and public exposure.

Apart from his own four-year appointment as conductor  of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, Thomas was destined to watch while imports of varied fame and ability came and went as chief conductors of the ABC orchestras: Willem van Otterloo, Louis Frémaux, Fritz Rieger, Ezra Rachlin, Hiroyuki Iwaki, Elyakum Shapirra, Tibor Paul, and David Measham.

Meanwhile, he himself was typically underpaid, underappreciated, underpromoted, and overworked by the same ABC. Nevertheless, with Otterloo and Iwaki, and fellow Australians Charles Mackerras and Stuart Challender, Patrick Thomas is one of the handful of ABC conductors of those decades to make a significant lasting impact on Australia’s orchestral culture.

By 1985, by which time the majority of these recordings were made, Patrick Thomas had clocked up 21 years as a full-time Australian-based professional conductor. A couple of years later, in the ABC’s 1987 concert yearbook, he reflected on how Australia’s relatively small concert circuit and audience numbers, compared with Europe’s or America’s enormous opportunities, affected the sheer business of survival in his unusual chosen profession:

To specialise out here would almost certainly lead to starvation after a time. I have found the need, therefore, to handle all areas of performance – ballet, opera, musical comedy; choirs large and small; the orchestral repertoire, chamber music, small instrumental groups, light and pop music, as well as mainstream and peripheral repertoire – that is, anything from Bach to Boulez and beyond – at times, with little or no rehearsal! If you can also address an audience, young or old, from the rostrum, in a way that draws them into the music, then you have an added string to your bow. In Australia, a conductor needs to be a bit of a chameleon.

As one of relatively few Australian-born and trained musicians to have carried on a distinguished career as a professional orchestral conductor, Patrick Thomas’s story is unusual. Yet, for the times, it is also a very typical Australian story of achievement against considerable odds. Born in the immediate wake of the Great Depression, his early musical formation was largely supported by the Queensland state education system during the likewise straitened times of the Second World War. He was enrolled at the Eagle Junction State School in 1938, and at the age of eight, joined its Drum and Fife Band. He was taught fife and flute firstly by a local teacher, A. H. Taylor. Early in 1944, aged 11, he joined the amateur Brisbane Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the German émigré Albert Kaeser, and was soon playing some Rossini, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven flute parts in community concerts around Brisbane, one notably at the Rocklea Munitions Factory. Later musical studies included piano and organ, for which he received A.Mus.A Performers Diplomas.

At 12, he auditioned for the first-ever ABC Concerto and Vocal Competition, and reached the state semi-final stage. This resulted in a broadcast engagement as soloist with the ABC’s Brisbane radio studio orchestra, under Clive Douglas, on 10 November 1944, marking the beginning of his career-long association with the ABC. An early concert engagement with the full ABC Brisbane Symphony Orchestra took place on the night of his 14th birthday, when he appeared as an augmenting flautist in Eugene Goossens’s very first Australian concert.

While at high school, Thomas developed a busy freelance career, playing not only for the national broadcaster, but in concert and theatre orchestras and small ensembles around Brisbane. He gained his early orchestral experience working under such visiting ABC conductors as Heinze, Post, and Code, and also Andrew MacCunn, the retired musical director of J.C. Williamson’s, who came to Brisbane in 1950 to conduct a Gilbert and Sullivan season from memory. In 1951, Thomas was in the pit with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra (as renamed in 1947) for a special Australian Jubilee (1901-51) ballet season that included Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, and, in May, also John Antill’s Corroboree – “the Australian Rite of Spring” – under the baton of the composer. Later that year, he acquiesced to the inevitable and joined the QSO as its full-time Second Flute, initially under the musical directorship of John Farnsworth Hall, and later of Rudolf Pekárek.

Paradoxically, his unexpected decision to leave the orchestra to take an accountancy job in 1955 was a crucial turning point in his musical career, an excuse to relinquish the prospect of a lifetime as an orchestral flautist, and to begin to raise his sights, tentatively, to the podium. Outside office hours, he took over directorship of the choir of Ann Street Presbyterian Church in 1958, and was deputy conductor of the Brisbane Services Choir. He also formed his own light-music chorus, the Patrick Thomas Singers, which made regular appearances on Brisbane television, and trained the chorus for the Queensland National Opera.

In 1963, during a QSO rehearsal, he auditioned for the ABC as a conductor, doing a ‘surprisingly good job’ sight-reading the first movement of Schumann’s First Symphony, according to his assessor, Joseph Post. The ABC’s Queensland Music Supervisor, Alan McCristal, duly informed the 31-year-old aspirant that he was henceforth recommended to conduct “occasional broadcasts”. But another peak musical organisation, the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, was considerably less cautious in its offer, and the start of 1964 saw Thomas taking over as one of the company’s resident conductors. Since the ABC state orchestras then provided the AETT with its opera and ballet pit bands, he found himself, de facto, one of the busiest ABC conductors that year after all. It was an emergency that first forced him into the pit, a month earlier than scheduled: from never having conducted a professional orchestra in performance, at three days’ notice he fronted the band in Melbourne’s Princess Theatre conducting Die Fledermaus.

Under the inspired stewardship of its artistic director Stefan Haag and chair “Nugget” Coombs, the AETT and its opera and ballet offshoots were experiencing their own glory days, the 1964 season perhaps its most glittering ever. After a Merry Widow in Hobart early in the year (though without, there, its star lead June Bronhill), Thomas joined the fledgling Australian Ballet as one of the conductors for its Fonteyn–Nureyev seasons in Sydney and Melbourne, before going on to conduct over 40 performances of Robert Helpmann’s The Display, to Malcolm Williamson’s new score, in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney, all with ABC orchestras. But, with a wife and two small children, he found all this touring destabilising, and already, only six months into the AETT post, was seeking a way out.

Accordingly, in 1965, he was happy to return more fully to the ABC fold as its Adelaide resident assistant conductor. Based there for the next eight years, rather more than the “occasional broadcast” would come his way. As deputy to Henry Krips, his early ABC concerts with the then South Australian Symphony Orchestra included Carmina burana and Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer in the Adelaide Town Hall. Thomas also took up the directorship of the Adelaide Singers, the only ABC broadcast chorus to outlive the early 1960s – indeed, at the time, the only professional non-operatic classical vocal ensemble in the country.

In the earliest of these Patrick Thomas recordings, laid down around 1969 in North Adelaide’s austerely Classical Tynte Street Baptist Church, he conducts the 10-voice core group of the Adelaide Singers, and two extras, in Palestrina’s Missa brevis. Intended for radio broadcast, the recording circulated widely on an ABC in-house vinyl disc, a typical Adelaide Singers mix of Renaissance and modern repertoire that included music by Britten, Sweelinck and Edgar Bainton. Probably Thomas and the Singers’ best-known recording, made with the SASO, was of the ABC's own William G. James’s Australian Christmas Carols, released commercially in 1969.

The ABC also put the Singers to work on more challenging recent repertoire. Caught up in the 1960s new wave of Australian composition, premiering and recording new Australian works for broadcast became its speciality. In this way, Thomas ‘created’ such new pieces as James Penberthy’s Cantata on Hiroshima Panels, Sculthorpe’s Morning Song for the Christ Child, and Colin Brumby’s Stabat Mater, as well as laying down first recordings of several Australian classics’, notably Alfred Hill’s Joy of Life Symphony, and mid-19th-century Adelaide composer Carl Linger’s Four Motets.

Two of the Adelaide Singers’ most important artistic achievements were its contributions to Nigel Butterley’s 1966 Italia Prize-winning radiophonic work In the Head the Fire, and to Thomas’s own 1973 premiere EMI quad stereo recording of Margaret Sutherland’s chamber opera on the life of Daisy Bates, The Young Kabbarli.

 The ABC finally disbanded the Singers in 1976, four years after Thomas had left Adelaide. But the group’s many recordings of Australian compositions remain a lasting legacy. They are represented here by Thomas’s 1970 recording of Ralph Middenway’s a-cappella Missa omnibus sanctis (Mass for All Saints).

Thanks to the ABC’s federal structure, Thomas’s conducting was by no means confined to Adelaide. The organisation sent him to Hobart in 1968 to deputise for Thomas Matthews, who was taking leave in the UK, as resident conductor of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. When Matthews decided not to return, ABC management expected Thomas to accept their offer of the TSO permanently, which would have made him the only Australian-born ABC resident conductor at the time. He believes they were somewhat surprised when he opted instead to stay on as assistant in Adelaide, where he believed he still had important work to do. He also wanted some overseas experience. ABC veteran conductor Bernard Heinze arranged for the scholarship sponsored by the Australian Opera Auditions Committee that first sent Thomas to Europe late in 1970. On a Churchill Fellowship in 1972 he also visited Britain, the USA and Canada.

The indisposition of his early mentor Joseph Post led to some of Thomas’s first sustained broadcast and concert engagements as an ABC conductor, taking over the Sydney Symphony at short notice for a concert with guitarist John Williams, and then for two intensive weeks conducting, recording and broadcasting the NSW finals of the 1972 ABC Concerto and Vocal Competition.

Then, at the start of 1973, he finally took over his own orchestra, returning to Brisbane and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, only the third Australian-born conductor to take full artistic control of an ABC orchestra, after Heinze and former QSO resident John Farnsworth Hall. It was, in one sense, an enormous vote of confidence.

But ABC preferment was a two-edged sword. On arrival, he discovered entirely by accident that his salary was a fraction of that paid to the imported conductors who headed the other ABC orchestras, less, even, than that of his own concertmaster. As he later recalled:

Since its earliest days the ABC had pushed the line in its publicity, or by none-too-subtle implication, that ANYONE from abroad is better, though it has also found from time to time that not every overseas conductor engaged was as competent.

Thomas used his time with the QSO to increase the amount of 20th-century music presented to its live and broadcast ABC audiences, showcasing not only Stravinsky, Takemitsu, Webern, Schoenberg, Ives, and Hartmann, but also recent works by Australian composers. His very first week with the orchestra was dedicated to recording Australian works in the new Mayne Hall at the University of Queensland, soon also to be the venue for Thomas’s recordings of James Penberthy’s Romance for violin and string orchestra, with QSO concertmaster Wilfred Lehmann as soloist, and Eric Gross’s Moonscape.

As Thomas recalled, these were just a few of many such firsts that ‘highlighted the QSO’s hitherto dormant usefulness as a vehicle for Australian composers’:

It was not exactly the height of fashion in the early 70s to perform works by Australian composers and their improved acceptance today, which is as it should be, may not have come about without the tenacious advocacy of various conductors and planners who were staunch advocates of our composers and performers in general.

As well as giving concert seasons, all the ABC orchestras spent much of the 1970s and 1980s in the studio. Imported commercial studio recordings by overseas orchestras were already dominating its airwaves, but ABC conductors worked hard to supply their broadcaster colleagues with matching studio recordings of Australian orchestras in as diverse a range of repertoire as possible. Hitherto, the lack of good studio facilities had left the QSO seriously underrepresented in the ABC’s recordings library, a situation Thomas set about remedying.

One project, aimed at providing ABC national broadcast programmers with Australian-played content, was the themed sample of orchestral overtures and marches presented here, recorded by Thomas and the QSO in Mayne Hall around 1975. Conditions in Mayne Hall were not perfect, however, and sadly it was only in Thomas’s last weeks in Brisbane that the QSO moved into its new state-of-the-art rehearsal and recording studio at Ferry Road, West End. Nevertheless, during an intensive fortnight in November 1977, Thomas and the QSO put the new studio through its paces, in a landmark series of recordings made under the direction of the visiting English master producer, Decca’s John Culshaw. From these historic sessions come the recordings presented here of extracts from Smetana’s Má vlast (from an entire cycle presented in the QSO subscription series), and the overture from Vaughan Williams’ incidental music to The Wasps (this very recording also reused in the soundtrack of the 1991 Nicole Kidman feature Flirting).

Not only was Thomas unusually productive in the recording studio, he had long since cemented his reputation with ABC management as its most quick-witted, versatile and adaptable conductor. Occasions on which he had taken over concerts from other indisposed or delayed ABC conductors are legion, more often than not having to be fitted into his own busy schedule, and requiring him to learn new scores in a matter of days. Elyakum Shapirra’s non-arrival in Brisbane in 1976 during an air traffic controllers’ strike left Thomas with a weekend to learn Barber’s Second Essay, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, and Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings with Barry Tuckwell and Ian Partridge. In 1974, he accompanied the Sydney Symphony Orchestra on its eight-week European tour as third conductor, which involved his having to learn the entire scheduled repertoire in case of indisposition of the other two maestros, Willem van Otterloo and Charles Mackerras.

After the ABC ‘promoted’ him to become its Sydney-based but roving permanent Conductor-in-Residence in 1978, occasions on which he was, he remembers, ‘asked to do anything nationally at a moment’s notice’ became almost routine. Due to a cancellation by Polish conductor–composer Krzysztof Penderecki, Thomas stepped in to prepare the Australian premiere of his monumental St. Luke Passion. In a glowing review in The Australian, Maria Prerauer noted that Thomas well deserved ‘the long sustained ovation at the end and the added personal cheers of the performers.’ She also took the opportunity to chide the ABC management, and suggest it ‘start cherishing and pushing what is already there under its bureaucratic nose’!

On the contrary, the stress of emergency takeovers, as well as a raft of administrative duties, were a heavy price to pay for what ABC chief music bureaucrat Harold Hort termed Thomas’s ‘continuing contract’. As he remembers, there were few perks:

Even disc recordings of my performances were to be without residual or replay rights. These were some of the demoralising bargain-basement and political circumstances with which I needed to cope in my relationship with the ABC. There was no real incentive other than the all-consuming passion for music-making.

That, and the fact that, by the time his term at the ABC finally came to an end eight years later, he was – and would remain for most of the 1980s – the single most regularly broadcast of the ABC’s dozens of conductors.

For any young Australian growing up in music in the 1970s and 1980s, Patrick Thomas seemed to be everywhere, his name often bearing the frisson of unusual and challenging repertoire. At a time when even the major ABC orchestras in Melbourne and Sydney typically managed only second-rank performances of standard 19th-century repertoire, Thomas – calling on deep reserves of personal respect – cajoled often recalcitrant players into excelling themselves in 20th-century music. A major recording project, begun with the Queensland Symphony and continued with the Sydney Symphony, was to revive Eugene Goossens’ compositional legacy, including the two symphonies, the Sinfonietta, and the opera Judith.

One of Thomas’s most important historical recoveries was one of Corroboree composer John Antill’s ‘other’ major works, the 1958 oratorio The Song of Hagar to Abraham the Patriarch, to a libretto by Ethel Campbell Anderson, recorded with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.

Until the 1980s, Australian conductors had to work overseas to make any impact internationally. As the decade proceeded, however, the world began coming to them. The 1984 Adelaide Festival proved to be a major showcase for Thomas, featuring his directorial skills in two very different cutting-edge works. The first was his season of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The second, a logistical tour-de-force, was coordinating over 200 performers in Biber’s Missa Salisburgensis, a massive work of the late 17th century featuring seven separate groups of performers and scored in no fewer than 53 individual parts, instrumental and vocal, spatially dispersed around the venue, St Peter’s Cathedral. A musical spectacle, it was noticed favourably in London’s The Times, a far cry (or perhaps, after all, not so far) from Thomas’s very first marshalling of massed Adelaide choral and orchestral forces at the 1965 Carols by Candlelight!

The ABC itself also provided Thomas with the opportunity to nurture ongoing personal collaborations. Working over many years of friendship with Brisbane’s senior composer William Lovelock was one particular personal joy. One of the first works Lovelock composed after his arrival in Queensland from England in 1957 was a set of Three Sketches for flute and piano, which he dedicated to Thomas and which they premiered together. Thomas went on in his conducting career to perform many of Lovelock’s concertos and orchestral works, including the Festive Overture, recorded with the Sydney Symphony around 1985. Lovelock’s music was then considered unfashionable and mostly overlooked in ‘new music’ circles, making it something of a cause on Thomas’s part. Since then, however, a return to mainstream musical values among many of Lovelock’s younger composing colleagues has reinstated his music – always, anyway, warmly appreciated by audiences – firmly within a living Australian tradition.

In 1982, during celebrations of the ABC’s 50th anniversary, Thomas was able to redress a slight to another unfairly neglected ‘Australian master’, the pianist Isador Goodman. The press had given considerable coverage to the fact that Goodman was being overlooked by the ABC in planning its anniversary programs, despite the fact that he had appeared in the ABC’s gala inaugural national broadcast concert in 1932. As Thomas recollects:

Once the press became involved, Harold Hort hurriedly arranged for Isador and me to fly to Melbourne to record the Liszt Concerto, presumably as a compensatory, last-minute gesture! Sadly, though Isador then had a gig with, I believe, the same work he had played over the ABC in 1932, he still did not appear in the 50th Gala concert! Sadder still, Isador died later that same year, 1982.

A series of recordings Thomas made with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra a few years earlier bear testimony to Goodman’s mastery. Along with Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Goodman’s performance as soloist in Addinsell’s movie classic, Warsaw Concerto, was released internationally by Polygram in 1980, one of the handful of ABC orchestral recordings at that time to have any overseas commercial exposure. The major Goodman–Thomas collaboration included here is Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. Thomas had first performed this concerto with Goodman in Brisbane in the early 1950s as a QSO flautist, little imagining that he would conduct the same pianist in the work almost thirty years later. A touching and appropriate Australian miniature also included here is the Idyll by Goodman’s former Sydney Conservatorium colleague, pianist–composer Lindley Evans.

After conducting the first two numbers in the ABC’s 50th birthday concert, Thomas himself was, according to one astute reviewer, ‘unceremoniously removed’ from the stage to make way for the overseas guest to conduct the Prokofiev and Beethoven showpieces. One of his contributions, taking him back to his AETT tour of The Display, was a specially commissioned work, In Thanksgiving, by Malcolm Williamson, which the composer fittingly recast as a tribute to one of the ABC’s founding fathers, Bernard Heinze, who had died three weeks earlier. The other work in Thomas’s care was, in his own words:

... the exquisite Serenade to Music by Ralph Vaughan Williams, with sixteen of Australia’s most noted singers cast in its solo parts. Here was ABC imagination at its best and a more distinguished group would be hard to imagine. The applause spoke volumes for the audience’s feelings.

To tell the story behind this collection of ABC recordings without returning to their conductor’s ambivalent relationship with the organisation would be to do a grave injustice to him as a person as much as an artist.

But the ABC bureaucracy that both nurtured and hindered his talent no longer exists, at least not in any recognisable form. The continuing ABC now concentrates on the broadcast portion of its musical charter – in which the six now independent orchestras continue to play a key role. And, through collections such as this, it still bears witness to its own memorable – now 80-year – musical legacy.

Graeme Skinner

Get the PATRICK THOMAS CD set details from ABC Shop Online or from Buywell Classics

See also Patrick Thomas mini-documentary (ABC Classics): 

© Graeme Skinner 2015