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Charmian Gadd

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The biographies of musicians are traditionally rather dry summaries of positions held, prizes won, orchestras and conductors played with and don’t give too much of a background to a real person living a real life. I will indulge the luxury of setting down my own version of events and will leave out the juicy bits to protect the innocent!


I was born in the Australian bush to a strange family. My father’s family were English intellectuals of the George Bernard Shaw persuasion who had sought a healthier life in Australia and found virtue in getting your hands in the soil and going barefoot, while arguing politics and religion with anyone who would engage. My mother was from a pioneering family with a father who rang bells at Christmas time for the Salvation Army and tolerated no books but the Bible in his home. 


Our house, built during the Great Depression, was a slab hut, a temporary dwelling that still stands and continues to be occupied after eighty years. There was no electricity, phone, sewerage or water supply. The Gadds had lost their property during the Depression, unable to pay the council rates, and the fifty acres of bush where we lived had been given to my mother’s mother at a time when the Government was encouraging settlement and clearing of the land. 


In those days men did whatever they could to make a living because there were no jobs. My father built a sawmill from an old tractor engine. He felled trees in the valley and dragged the logs up to the mill, there to be broken down and sawn into boards to make packing cases for the local citrus industry. As a child I was part of those activities. I learned to wield an axe, a hammer, a hoe and a rifle at about the same time I was learning to write and wield a violin bow. I knew every bird, tree and flower, snake and spider. I went barefoot most of the time and attended a small country school, which did not seem to mind bare feet. Music was very much a part of our lives and Grandfather used to wake us with the 

Peer Gynt Suite played on the old wind-up gramophone with the sharp needles. Friends, who had been sent to the War and returned to the Conservatorium to finish their studies, came up during holidays and played string quartets. There was a plague of rabbits at the time, so our friends left their rifles at our house and my mother cooked rabbit stew. Most of the rest of our food we grew. 


My mother began to teach me the violin when I showed interest at three or so, and our friends helped out as she was teaching herself at the same time. A not very auspicious start, you could say, but it was fun and I managed to show some talent at Sydney competitions, which set my path to the Sydney Conservatorium High School.


I will condense the next many years as they were more conventional: shoes, a uniform, orchestra where I had to sight read, Diploma, winning Eisteddfods, the ABC Concerto and Vocal Competition, AMEB Overseas Scholarship, etc. My father died when I was fourteen and the life in the bush was now gone except for weekends, replaced with an intense immersion in European culture, brought on by the immigration of several wonderful musicians from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 


Richard Goldner had begun Musica Viva, the chamber music organization in 1945 and I benefitted from a golden period of development where I was surrounded by chamber music. The influence of Robert Pikler, whose sound I still have yet to hear equaled on the viola, and of visiting groups like the Budapest and Hungarian Quartets were central to my listening at this stage.


Phyllis MacDonald had been my teacher at the Conservatorium, a graduate of the Royal Academy under Hans Wessely. Richard Goldner was my exceedingly demanding teacher for the next crucial years. He gave me my bow arm. I was ready to go overseas, but where? Richard took me to play for Henryk Szeryng, who suggested Josef Gingold at Indiana University. Szeryng was enormously helpful and made a personal phone call to Gingold. Over the next decades, whenever Szeryng and I were in the same area, I would play for him. Then he would play the same thing for me. That was his teaching strategy and I must say I learned a tremendous amount from being close to that sound, that bow arm and that intonation! 


Gingold was a delight, an affable, loveable man and a charismatic player. His background with Ysaÿe in Brussels and in New York with Toscanini and Cleveland with Szell gave him a breadth of experience that would be hard to recreate and was a very severe dose of discipline to the score tempered with flair and colour. He worked mostly on my left hand and we covered a huge amount of repertoire. We remained friends to the end of his life and I sent him my most gifted students.


The other lifelong friend and powerful influence was Janos Starker, in whose chamber music class I found myself paired with Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi and another person destined to be a lifelong friend, the pianist Ford Hill. Georg Sebok was his teacher and Starker’s piano partner. When Sebok sat at the piano poetry happened. I was privileged to play with Starker and Sebok and think in retrospect that their influence on me was stronger than the mainstream American trends of the time.


The next few years I will again distill: concert tours in Australia and New Zealand where I played with all the orchestras of those countries, the first Trio Concertante in San Francisco with Laszlo Varga and Istvan Nadas, a Diplome d’honneur from the 1966 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, a Wigmore Hall debut in London where the Times of London wrote, “If ever a woman was born to play concertos it is Australian violinist Charmian Gadd”.


From 1967, under management in London, I played in England, Scotland, Ireland, Holland and Scandinavia. I played in the Bath Festival Orchestra with Menuhin and St Martins in the Field with Marriner. I recorded for the BBC. In 1969 I returned to USA as Associate Professor at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh. 

Richard Goldner and I married. I was a prizewinner in competitions held in Vienna, Philadelphia, and received a Diplome d’honneur at the Sibelius Competition. I also played and adjudicated across USA and Canada, Hong Kong, organising festivals and concert series. I helped Richard Goldner with the development and marketing of the Playonair shoulder rest and other inventions.


I then formed a duo with wonderful Canadian pianist, Patricia Parr, who was also teaching at Duquesne University. Together we played most of the violin/piano literature and later reformed the Trio Concertante with Fritz Magg.


In 1978 I moved to the west coast as Associate Professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham. Richard retired and started Musica Viva International, a concert series with festivals and a chamber music focus. We worked with Israeli violist, Yizhak Schotten in concerts, festivals and recordings of the violin/viola repertoire. The highlight was the Kapalua Festival in Maui.


Whilst in America, I found my way back to living in the forest. We had a large home set amongst Douglas fir trees with a spacious music room overlooking a little creek and Puget Sound in the far distance. I created a colourful garden that we shared with three large dogs and two cats. It was a forest garden I never wanted to leave. But both Richard and I had family back in Australia. So in 1987 we made the decision to return.


John Painter had just moved to Canberra and was turning the Canberra School of Music into Australia’s premier music teaching institution. I was privileged to join the faculty there and be part of a very exciting era. I then moved to Sydney to be closer to my aging mother. In 1990 I joined the staff of the Conservatorium as Artist in Residence and later Chairman of Strings. This was a difficult time for me as both Richard and my mother died in the early 1990s. I resigned from the Conservatorium in 1994.


A musical highlight was the formation of the Macquarie Trio with Kathryn Selby and Michael Goldschlager. I also enjoyed the part I played as Australian Artistic Director of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville. Another exciting involvement was the formation of the Australian Strings Academy, which presented several great Summer Schools and chamber music competitions, 
festivals and fundraising initiatives. During this time I was invited on to the Jury of the Menuhin Competition in Folkestone UK, and the Japan International Chamber Music Competition in Osaka. I also judged the ABC Competition, Ku Ring Gai Competition, and the Gisborne and Melbourne Chamber Music Competitions.


In 1994, after the death of my mother, I purchased in New York a Goffriller violin, which I love passionately. It is a little bigger than my former violin. Shortly after I acquired the Goffriller, the Macquarie Trio began recording for ABC Classics. During the recording sessions I began to suffer from a strain in my hand, and eventually had to make the painful decision that my performing days were over. I resigned from the Trio with deep regret, but have remained good friends with my fellow players.


I now needed a new project to dig into, so I purchased the Violinery from Ronald Cragg. Running the Violinery was a sharp learning curve and, though I learned many things, I found my inclinations and character were not suited to business. During this time I started the Musician’s Own Concert Series in a church in Lindfield, working with pianist, Phillip Shovk, cellist Georg Pedersen, and my new partner in life, Tony Gault.


To them I credit keeping me alive musically. When we get together at my home on the Central Coast, we play for sheer pleasure. With long rest my hand has confounded the doctors and lets me play for limited periods of time. In the context of a relaxed environment, Phillip has coaxed me back to performing. I now enjoy practising and can endure quite taxing programmes. I believe I enjoy playing my violin more than ever and have perhaps reached maturity! Just kidding!

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