Fans of conductor Richard Gill paid a wonderful tribute to the musician before he died

Richard Gill during the 2004 Opera Australia production of Dido and Aeneas at the Sydney Opera House Patrick Riviere/Getty Images

On his last day on earth, conductor and music educator Richard Gill was at home in Sydney’s inner west when dozens of the thousands of people he’d influenced turned up outside the house to pay tribute to their mentor and remind him how loved he is.

Gill died of cancer on Sunday morning, aged 76.

A sold-out concert in Sydney planned for next Monday to mark Gill’s 77th birthday was to be beamed to his home, but as it became clear the conductor would not witness the celebration, Sydney Symphony Orchestra associate principal trumpet Paul Goodchild decided to take a spontaneous concert to his mentor, telling Fairfax Media he expected 15-20 people to turn up.

Instead, more than 70 people arrived in Stanmore, including a police band, to play for Gill, who was inside with his family and close friend Kim Williams by his side.

“This was the perfect way of saying thank you, goodbye and a great tribute to somebody who has made so much of a difference, to not only the lives of musicians, but to everybody who really listens to music,” Goodchild told Fairfax.

The played his favourite piece, The Dam Busters March, from the 1955 British war movie as a tribute to Gill.

Williams says that when applause broke out after they’d played the piece, Gill opened his eyes and smiled.

It was fitting that a spontaneous concert should be his last performance. One of Gill’s final public appearances as he faced cancer was last year, conducting hundreds of amateur voices in the Sydney Flash Mob Choir at the City Recital Hall in Angel Place in a 40-minute concert.

Richard James Gill was a Sydney boy. Born and raised in Eastwood, where he went to Marist college, he started his working life as a music teacher, a passion that never left him in more than five decades as a conductor and educator.

The Catholic Mass and chants in Latin instilled a belief in the power of the human voice in Gill.

One of his early students was media executive Kim Williams, a decade his junior, and the pair became lifelong friends.

As Williams recounted, despite inspiring, conducting and mentoring thousands of children over the years, Gill had an “annoying” and remarkable talent for remembering everyone’s names, even decades after he’d taught them.

His career as a conductor really took off when he founded the Strathfield Symphony Orchestra in 1969.

His last great project was as artistic director and co-founder of the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra, which announced that the Richard Gill Memorial Fund will be set up at his request to help cement its future and develop young Australian musicians.

Paying tribute to Gill on the orchestra’s website, co-founders Rachael Beesley and Nicole van Bruggen said “he will be remembered for his contagious energy and flamboyant rhetoric”.

“Adamant and forthright one moment, then exuberant and funny, then a wistful conjurer or reflective poet,” they said, adding that the conductor spent his life “systematically addressing the widespread shortcomings and neglect of music” in the Australian education system.

“He was convinced of the positive effects of music on young people,” they said.

“This was not to churn out more Mozarts, but to switch children on to creative thinking and lateral problem solving, to inspire young minds to be interested in and engaged with their surroundings, and be able to clearly articulate their observations.”

Among his many achievements and ways of addressing that, Gill created the Baby Proms series for children to experience classical music.

“Like the fading of a beautiful sustained note, or that magical silence following a fabulous performance, a loss as significant as Richard Gill cannot be adequately explained or understood,” Beesley and van Bruggen say in their tribute to their artistic director.

“This loss – like music – evokes, suggests and implies. But what we can do is keep making a multitude of sounds. And in every one of them, we know and celebrate that Richard is still there with us.”

With his shock of white curly hair, Gill was a striking, yet impish figure with a quick smile. His distinguished career ranges from teaching at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music to dean of the Western Australian Conservatorium of Music and director of chorus at the Opera Australia.

He founded Victorian Opera in 2005 and became its inaugural artistic director. He was conductor with the Sydney Youth Orchestra in the mid ’70s to early ’80s, artistic director and chief conductor of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra, and most recently was musical director of the Sydney Chamber Choir.

He conducted the world premiere of Alan John’s The Eighth Wonder (1995) and Moya Henderson’s Lindy (2002) for Opera Australia, and championed works by Australian composers.

Even if you hadn’t seen him conduct, fans of the ABC TV series Spicks and Specks came to know Gill through his regular appearances on the quiz show, where he was right at home alongside rock stars.

Construction of the independent Muswellbrook Richard Gill Music Academy in the Hunter Valley, north of Sydney, for children from kindergarten to primary school, is currently underway. A passionate advocate of early engagement with music, the school will open in 2020 underpinned by the conductor’s philosophy on music and is being built by the local council.

Richard Gill is survived by wife Maureen; children Claire and Anthony; grandchildren Camille, Elise and Antoinette, and the thousands of children who grew up to be passionate about music.

Richard Gill, Conductor
Born: Sydney, 4 November, 1941
Died: Sydney, 28 October, 2018

Here is the impromptu concert outside his home on Saturday, filmed by flautist Jane Rutter: