Close to the Flame by Richard Davis

Close to the Flame : The life of Stuart Challender - Richard Davis

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Ask an Australian to identify the most famous Australian classical music conductor since 1788 and I’ll be astounded if anyone can do so. Drop the hint that he came from a farm in Tasmania and that he died offering support for AIDS sufferers like himself…prepare to agree that Australians in general are not classical music lovers.

I think it’s all a question of geography. I’m not sure that Richard Davis, the author of a brilliant new book on Stuart Challender, would agree. Too facile, he might respond. If we were located where Austria is our kids would holiday in Poland or France or Italy or even the United Kingdom – that is, just across the border where people have hundreds of years of exposure to fine music and art. Most Australians give little thought to countries twenty-four hours away by plane and even less to fine music.

But a growing minority devote their lives to producing fine art and wonderful music, or, if not so talented themselves,  working hard to pave the way for the great performers among us. Men like Stuart Challender. Stuart who? And that’s my point.  Stuart Challender was an Australian conductor who was widely acclaimed overseas, but known to only that small number of patrons who support the best classical music in his homeland.

The Challender story is an interesting one. Born in Tasmania, Stuart was the son of a well-known Australian Rules footballer. David Challender, Stuart’s father, could never understand what his son was talking about much of the time. Stuart’s desire to be a conductor translated in David’s mind into his son being a ticket puncher on the trams or buses. To persuade Stuart’s parents that he should study music required the considerable argumentative talents of a forward thinking grandmother.  Stuart’s tutors very soon discovered a musical genius in their midst, one who was prepared to insist that he be allowed to have his way, even to the extent of conducting an orchestra.

Richard Davis is my idea of a reviewer. His biography of Stuart Challender affirms this. Thoroughly researched and documented to the fierce standards of a Ph D program, Davis’s book signals that, where there is any dispute, his argument should receive close attention. The book is comprehensive, the data stored safely, and the prose writing develops the argument from a position of strength.

Critical to the Stuart Challender story is the well-travelled road to study and work in Europe. This was a new world for him.

It was not until I went to Germany that I discovered what hard work really was and how competitive the conducting world is…my experience in far-off Hobart and Melbourne seemed to count for nothing. I became quite bitter about that because it felt like I was starting off from scratch all over again” (27).

Stuart found Zen Buddhism in Nuremberg. It was an unexpected encounter with a monk whose influence became profound. “He…seemed to have so many answers that I had been looking for” (28). Later he reports on a soul-searching experience with Zen Buddhism in New South Wales.

Departing for a teaching job in Hamburg, Stuart understood why so many orchestras felt ‘self-satisfied’.

Whether you’re playing piano or waving a baton, you’ll always be compared with the famous ones who have gone before and that’s a big challenge that doesn’t exist in Australia, but the challenge is part of the learning (30).

By his early twenties Stuart had become a very fine pianist whose heart was set on being a conductor. It took years of hard work to accomplish this. The Australian composer Carl Vine recalls: “I was amazed. I’d never encountered a conductor who could play so well” (31).

After six years of hard, repetitive and soul-destroying work (and a girl-friend) Stuart accepts a conductor’s baton at the Lucerne Opera – he was on his way. A very ‘telling’ anecdote has its beginning in Marilyn (Stuart’s lover) and David Challender (Stuart’s father). At a performance of La Traviata, conducted by Stuart, David’s father turned to Marilyn and asked, “Is he really any good?” She replied, “Yes, he is very good.” Marilyn’s tears flowed as the suppressed apprehension that Stuart might not be as good a conductor as she had hoped simply disappeared from her mental harness. Now, she believed.

Stuart’s career grew to include many of the major opera houses in Europe and the major cultural centres in America. After twelve years, he returned home to join Opera Australia. The boy from Tasmania had conquered the world in one of the toughest gigs there is. He was a world figure, the recipient of invitations to conduct renowned international orchestras arriving each day. At that splendid stage, Nature struck a blow. Stuart was diagnosed with AIDS.

Richard Davis devotes over forty pages of a 260 page book to Stuart Challender as an AIDS respondent. Stuart is never seen as a victim but rather, he is the bright light that draws the moths who want to know about this terrible scourge. It was Stuart’s fond wish that the public become educated about, and learn to live with rather than fear, this devastating condition. Courageous and steadfast to the end, Stuart Challender died at age forty-four.

A sad story…but what about the book? What about the author? Stuart Challender may not have been a household name but those who read this book will have a number of experiences: they will know the Stuart Challender as depicted through anecdote, memories of childhood told in the ways their own grandfathers used to tell, references to school life that Australians in one way or another identify. They will watch Stuart take his first fumbling steps to understand his sexuality, and then be led into worlds of opera, abroad and at home. (Stuart’s life was so full and Richard Davis’ coverage so immense that this reviewer could sample and report on only an infinitesimal amount). Davis’s  readers are faced finally with a savage death which asks the question: whose fault is this? And Is death, whatever its form, faultless?

I had no trouble with the pacing of events, or the style or the vocabulary. The book did not feel foreign to me. It was about people like me, people who love classical music. That is why I am recommending it as excellent reading.

Close to the Flame


By Richard Davis

Wakefield Press

ISBN: 978-1-74305-456-7

$45.00; 264pp

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