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21 August 2017

Patrick Thomas - obituary

A young Patrick Thomas at work Image: A young Patrick Thomas at work  

Martin Buzacott's obituary of Patrick Thomas builds on the speech he gave at the 2011 Art Music Awards, when Thomas shared the Award for Distinguished Services to Australian Music with conductor John Hopkins.

Brisbane-born conductor Patrick Thomas, who died on 1 August 2017, was almost exactly the same age as the ABC - both came into the world in 1932 - and his career was inextricably linked with that of the national broadcaster.

When he was 12 years old, Patrick attended Eugene Ormandy's legendary wartime performances at the Brisbane City Hall, acquired the great man's autograph, and decided that he wanted to become a conductor himself. It was a childhood decision which would have major ramifications, not just for Patrick himself, but for Australian music-making generally, and Australian composers in particular.

As a young flautist, Patrick played in the ABC's Brisbane Symphony Orchestra during Eugene Goossens's first-ever concert in Australia. It was Patrick's 14th birthday on 1 June 1946, and he wore short trousers onstage.

The following year, the ABC established the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in the form in which we know it today, and, for some years, Patrick held the position of Second Flute, playing under international greats such as Otto Klemperer and Sir John Barbirolli. He also made the acquaintance of ABC staff conductor Joseph Post, from whom he sought conducting advice.

Family commitments meant that, in the early 1950s, Patrick left the QSO to pursue a more stable career in accountancy, although he continued to conduct amateur musical groups. Finally, in the early 1960s, Joseph Post arranged for Patrick Thomas to audition as a conductor with QSO.

Afterwards, Post gave him two bits of advice. The first one was 'not to work too hard', by which he meant that the conductor should leave enough space for the orchestra to play without constant over-direction from the conductor. And the second tip, never to be forgotten, was, 'and for Chrissakes, keep your bum in! Don't crouch over the orchestra'. In later life, Patrick loved telling that story, and assuring the listener that he had, indeed, kept his bum in ever since.

It must have been a successful audition, because soon afterwards, accountant Patrick received the telegram that all aspiring conductors must dream about. Arriving in the Outback Queensland town of Wandoan to conduct a routine branch audit, his wife Helen rang to tell him that the Elizabethan Theatre Trust wanted him to conduct its upcoming season of Die Fledermaus in Melbourne. Accountancy never stood a chance from there, and hundreds of AETT performances later, some of them conducted without rehearsal, Patrick Thomas's professional career as a conductor was established.

Patrick initially came to prominence with the ABC's Adelaide Singers which he conducted from the mid-1960s. This was the last surviving ensemble of the ABC's old wireless choruses, and, under his direction, a long and distinguished catalogue of Australian works were programmed and premiered. It would become a theme of Patrick's entire career. Wherever he went, whether conducting with vocal ensembles or orchestras, whether in hardcore avant-garde extravaganzas or light music soirees, throughout the country, outstanding performances of new Australian music would follow.

In 1973 he became Chief Conductor of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra - the first, and to this day still the only, time that an Australian orchestra had appointed one of their own to the top job. During his five years with QSO, he demonstrated that he could conduct anything, from Mozart to Sibelius, to the avant-garde, and he did, in scintillating concerts that those of us who witnessed them have never forgotten.

Most of all, though, those of us who grew up in Brisbane during the 1970s will always remember those Modern Music Forum concerts, organised by Patrick and the ABC's Queensland Music Manager at the time, Tony Gould.

In these landmark events, the Queensland Symphony Orchestra under Patrick played the major new works of Australian orchestral repertoire emerging at the time, by composers like Peter Sculthorpe, Don Banks, James Penberthy and Eric Gross, as well as local composers like Colin Brumby and Philip Bracanin, plus older works by Raymond Hanson, and so many more.

There were so many of us, young Queenslanders at the time, who were inspired by his example to pursue careers in contemporary music ourselves.

But this kind of activity on behalf of Australian music wasn't confined to the improbable setting of Joh Bjelke-Petersen's Queensland. Patrick conducted new Australian repertoire all over the country, with all the orchestras, as his vast recording legacy, much of it with the Sydney and Melbourne Symphony Orchestras, demonstrates.

Then, in the late 1970s, Patrick moved to Sydney to become the ABC's conductor-in-residence, and as part of that role he helped to uncover new Australian composers - names we hadn't heard of at the time: Graeme Koehne, Gerard Brophy, Andrew Schultz, Michael Smetanin and Brenton Broadstock - a whole new generation of Australian composers who are now leading figures in our musical life.

The nearest figure we can calculate with certainty is that during the height of his Australian career from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, Patrick conducted the music of at least 110 different Australian composers. There are probably many more.

With many of these composers he established long-term relationships, conducting multiple works of theirs at all stages of their careers, and championing their cause at every opportunity.

This was one of the really important things about Patrick as a conductor and as an advocate for Australian music - he didn't just give first performances by contemporary composers, although he certainly gave an unprecedented number of those. He championed the music of ALL Australian composers, living and dead, and he gave as many second and third and fourth performances - keeping the new music alive and circulating - as he did premieres.

So now you can type the name of almost any Australian composer you can think of into a sound or broadcast library catalogue, and chances are you'll turn up performances conducted by Patrick Thomas.

But this extraordinary legacy was achieved at considerable personal and professional cost. For a man who had done so much for so long for so many others, and whose international career was flourishing at the time, his opportunities to conduct in Australia from the mid-1980s onwards were limited to almost nothing.

This long-time champion of Australian composers now found himself without a champion himself, and, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, he conducted more in Europe and South Africa than he did in Australia, including with major orchestras in Munich, Prague and at the BBC.

But history is already treating him with deservedly greater respect.

In 2011 Art Music Awards he received an Award for Distinguished Services to Australian Music, and, later that year, ABC Classics released an 8-CD set of his recordings in its Australian Masters Series. Many of these recordings remain active in the ABC Classics catalogue today, some of them 40 years after they were recorded, and continue to be broadcast regularly on ABC Classic FM.

A gentle, kind and self-deprecating family man, Patrick Thomas remained active in music even as ill-health overcame him, devoting his later years to working in radio, corresponding, and writing his memoirs and poetry.

Patrick is survived by his wife Helen and their two children, daughter, Leigh and son, Nigel, and four grandchildren.

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