Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 22, 2018

Close to the Flame, the Life of Stuart Challender (2017), by Richard Davis

From a story of courage from a Sudanese refugee, to a celebration of an entirely different kind of courage, I found reading this biography to be an emotional experience.  Close to the Flame, the Life of Stuart Challender is the latest of Richard Davis’ fine biographies of Australia’s great musicians.  I have previously read Wotan’s Daughter, the life of Marjorie Lawrence but Challender’s premature death from AIDS at the age of 44 was a tragedy not just for him and his family, but also for Australian music.  It’s just impossible to read this thoughtful biography without a sense of what might have been: if not for his untimely death, Stuart Challender (1947-1991) would have had an international career, there would be numerous recordings of his oeuvre, and he would probably still be delighting audiences with beautiful music even now.  He was, as Davison says in the Prelude, the finest Australian-born conductor of his generation.  

(And I heard him early in his career because it coincided with my discovery of opera in the early 1980s, when he came to Melbourne to conduct the Australian Opera).

The biography follows a conventional chronological route, starting with Challender’s childhood in Tasmania and his early promise as a musician, learning piano and clarinet.  It was this part of the book that interested me most because I am always fascinated to learn how childhood experiences and opportunities translate into genius.  Well, it was his grandmother Thelma Driscoll who fostered his love of music by singing arias around the house, and it was when his father took him in 1961 to hear Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony conducted by Tibor Paul, that Stuart decided aged 14, that he wanted to be a conductor.

I thought it was the most amazing and exciting thing I’d ever heard!  Tibor Paul threw himself around, his arms flailing and drawing incredible sounds from our little orchestra. [The Tasmanian Orchestra had just 31 players at the time].  I was transported by the music – the peasants’ merrymaking in the third movement and the colossal storm music of the fourth.  And of course I was fascinated by the conducting.  There and then… on the spot, I decided that a conductor was what I wanted to be. (p.7)

(I don’t actually find it as surprising as Davis does that a working-class ex-serviceman with footy ambitions for his son should attend a concert.  Unlike today, schools in those days routinely exposed their students to classical music, and ABC Radio and TV routinely broadcast classical music as part of its everyday programming including concerts and operas on Sunday nights. Whereas today, if a parent doesn’t tune to Classic FM, a child may have only the most minimal exposure to classical music.)

Stuart’s first opportunities to conduct came with the New Town School Orchestra in Hobart, and then at the Hobart Matriculation College.  But the first musician to influence him much was Felix Gethen, only a minor composer but a wizard at adapting orchestral scores to fit the small Tasmanian Orchestra’s resources.  Tasmania, however, was always going to be limited in opportunities so at 17 he applied for and won a scholarship to the Conservatorium of Music in Melbourne, (though his family had to help him out when the scholarship was not renewed in 1966.)

At Melbourne Stuart studied piano under Ronald Farren-Price  and thrived in the companionship of other music students.  To increase his opportunities to conduct Stuart formed his own Melbourne Youth Chamber Orchestra and also tried his hand at composing.  Significantly for his later career, he came into the orbit of the composer Keith Humble and was inspired by his enthusiasm for contemporary composers.

He joined the Victorian Opera Company in 1966 where he played piano for rehearsals plus clarinet or percussion in the orchestra, and he also coached some of the principals and rehearsed the chorus.  Eventually he was listed in the program for Carmen as ‘repetiteur and assistant conductor’, and made his opera conducting debut with Tales of Hoffman later in the year.  At 21 he succeeded the retiring conductor Leonard Spira and his first performance of an opera called Albert Herring received a glowing review in the London journal Opera:

The conductor was Stuart Challender, who controlled the singers and the orchestra with professional ease. (p.21)

Although he was granted a scholarship for the next phase of his studies in Germany, being short of money continued to be a problem right through his next venture.   His parents sent him money, and his grandmother knitted warm clothes for the bitter winters.  Although he was often lonely because he had not come to terms with his sexuality, he still managed to enjoy the companionship of friends and attended inspiring performances such as Wagner’s Ring Cycle in Hamburg.  But although he learned a lot, his progress was modest and in 1980 Stuart came home to a job offer with the Australian Opera in Sydney.

The rest , they might say, is history, but it’s fascinating reading, especially following his pathway from occasional guest conductor of minor performances to Chief Conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and his first international tours.  While most of us know him as the conductor of orchestral music and opera, he was also a mentor and friend to some of Australia’s rising stars: notably Carl Vine but also Richard Tognetti and others.  But it was such a short career, and a sense of melancholy begins to pervade the chapters as the diagnosis of AIDS is made, and his illness starts to impact on his work.  It is extraordinary to read how he pushed himself to fulfil his commitments despite being sick and exhausted, even flying to London to make his English National Opera debut in 1991, the year of his death.

This book is a treat for music lovers.  As the copious notes at the back of the book show, it is the product of extensive research.  There is a chronology of Challender’s life and career, an extensive discography (which notes that the ABC has a large body of material in its archives which is not accessible and has not been released commercially.  (A search at the ABC Shop online retrieved no results for Challender recordings at all, though it’s possible they’re just hopeless at tagging, I suppose).   Elsewhere in the book Davis notes that the ABC carelessly recorded a news broadcast over the top of a tape of a Challender recording, so let’s hope they don’t do that again!  There is also a comprehensive index and several pages of B&W photographs.

I have previously featured Richard in my series Meet an Aussie Author, do check it out.

Author: Richard Davis
Title: Close to the Flame, the Life of Stuart Challender
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2017
ISBN: 9781743054567
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press
Available from Fishpond: Close to the Flame: The life of Stuart Challender or direct from Wakefield Press.


  1. Wonderful review of an inspiring man. It is sad the schools don’t expose children to classical music as they did in the past. I remember in the 1960’s, attending primary school temporarily in California, our class was taken to a concert by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. I have never forgotten the awe I felt. Always sad when people of this caliber die too young.


    • Yes, we were taken to symphony concerts when we were young, and this book says Stuart Challender was too. But back then we had ABC orchestras all over the country as well as state symphony orchestras. That was until someone decided it was elitist…


  2. I like ballet and Gilbert & Sullivan, and small amounts of the various tenors, and for some reason Holst’s The Planets. But yes, I do think opera is elitist, and I would much rather listen to Rock n’ Roll and Blues and Jazz.


    • I don’t think any kind of music is elitist. It’s just music and anyone can listen to whatever they like.


  3. […] Close to the Flame, the Life of Stuart Challender by Richard Davis […]


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