As a three-year-old barefooted girl in the bush (in Ourimbah), Charmian Gadd used to watch returned soldiers on the family property put down their rifles to take up the violins and cellos they’d left behind to fight a war overseas.
‘They’d disappear into the bush to practise Bach suites and concerti,’ Charmian recalls. ‘They’d walk along the track practising their violins. But when one of them saw a rabbit, another would hold the violin and bow, and – bang – rabbit stew for our dinner.
‘There was music-making in our home in the evenings and I so very much wanted to participate, but had to play on a full-sized violin and a half-sized cello. Finally, when I was six, I was given a half-size violin.’
At the age of eight, Charmian’s mother entered her in the City of Sydney Eisteddfod, where she won first prize in the under-16s.
‘That’s when Mum realised she had to get me to a proper teacher,’ says Charmian and, at 12 years of age, she was sent to the Conservatorium High School in Sydney where she faced the shock of having to wear shoes and a uniform. The rest, as they say, is history.
Charmian emerged as a talented young violinist, winning the 1963 ABC Concerto and Vocal Competition (Young Performers) and the Australian Music Examinations Board Overseas Scholarship.
‘The Viennese-trained violinist [and founder of Musica Viva], Richard Goldner, was one of my great teachers; he was exceedingly demanding,’ says Charmian. ‘Together with Josef Gingold [considered one of the most influential violin masters in the US], they instilled in me a severe dose of discipline to the music score, tempered with flair and colour.’
She soon found that the discipline of competing, learning new pieces, and that constant performing was a way to develop good concentration skills and ‘to build the confidence to do your best in front of the scariest juries’.
In 1966, Charmian left Australia to compete in the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow where she received its Diplôme d’honneur. Later, she was a prize-winner in competitions held in Vienna, Philadelphia, and in Helsinki where she gained a Diplôme d’honneur in the Sibelius Competition. Charmian also played with Yehudi Menuhin in the Bath Festival Orchestra, and with Sir Neville Marriner at St Martins in the Field. (It was Yehudi Menuhin who first invited Charmian onto the jury for the Menuhin Competition in Folkstone in England in the 1990s.)
In 1969, Charmian joined Richard Goldner in Pittsburgh where she appeared as soloist with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, as well as the Vancouver Orchestra, the North-West Chamber Orchestra in Seattle, and more. She also became a founding member of Trio Concertante in San Francisco. Charmian and Richard married in 1970.
In New York, Charmian also fell in love with an 18th-century violin, handcrafted by Matteo Goffriller, a renowned Venetian violin maker.
‘It’s a soulful instrument, and powerful. I feel a definite affinity to that voice,’ she says. ‘It’s not an easy instrument to play; it’s fairly large, it offers a lot of challenges, but it’s worth it. It tells you how it wants to be treated.’
In the 1990s, Charmian became a co-founder of the Macquarie Trio and began recording for ABC Classics.
Today, her joy is still in the shared pleasure of playing with seasoned musicians, international students, local emerging artists, or even a seven-year-old violin student ‘itching to perform’.
Her Copacabana home’s spacious music room houses a grand piano, Art Deco music stands, and a scattering of violin cases, as well as her collection of paintings and photos (Charmian is also a painter and writer). She knows the importance of a safe place with a receptive audience where that seven-year-old student, accompanied by a professional pianist, can fulfil her dream of playing a Mozart sonata – written when Mozart was not much older than she.
It’s also why Charmian has devoted herself to helping establish the Australian Strings Academy with its summer schools and competitions for students. And it is why she is patron of Symphony Central Coast and the Central Coast Conservatorium. She continues teaching, is a music consultant, and a member of the teaching and music committee at the Central Coast Conservatorium of Music.
Celebrating her 80th in 2022, Charmian – still with her Goffriller violin – takes great delight in continuing to play in chamber music performances that have affectionately become known on the Central Coast as ‘Charmian and Friends’.
WORDS ROSALIE PAINO. MAIN PHOTO PETER HISLOP.