Virtuoso administrator and musician

Virtuoso administrator and musician

JOHN WINTHER Born August 20, 1933; Died May 13, 2012

Former director of the Canberra (now ANU) School of Music John Winther died on May 13 in the town of Lohals on the island of Langeland, Denmark, aged 78.

Born in Copenhagen on August 20, 1933, he was the son of a maitre d'hotel and a housewife. As a lad he played saxophone in a boys' band at Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens, moving to oboe and harp in his youth. However, it was the piano that was to become his major instrument; he studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, making his professional debut in 1954.

In the late 1950s, he became increasingly involved in arts administration, and was eventually appointed director of opera at the Royal Danish Theatre (in whose orchestra he had played). He moved to Sydney in 1971 as general director of the Australian Opera, bringing with him his third wife, Lone Koppel, as a principal dramatic soprano. He made a strong impact as a pianist during his Sydney years, and was highly acclaimed for work as accompanist with various AO stars - Raymond Myers, Lauris Elms, Ronald Dowd, and Donald Shanks to name but a few. He subsequently took the post of director at the Newcastle Conservatorium of Music in 1977.

On the retirement in 1980 of the Canberra School of Music's founding director, the sainted Ernest Llewellyn, Winther was appointed his successor.

The school's talented, sadly short-lived senior technical officer, John Crocker, wryly observed that while August 31 was the last day of winter, September 1 was actually the first day of Winther.


Winther made an excellent contribution to the school's development. His breadth of experience and entrepreneurial skill equipped him to be the right man at the right time as the second director of a fledgling conservatorium. He appropriately exercised much greater power and influence as director of a one-discipline institution than a head of school is able to within the current regrettable university arrangements.

He fostered and encouraged capable staff members; in fleshing out the school, his appointments were always professionally considered with a mind to the main thrust of a conservatorium: practical performance supported by intellectual understanding, as distinct from the academic musicological concern of a university music department. His developmental work often required a courageous approach to financial management; he would push his budget to extremes, finding ingenious ways to increase the power of each dollar. Musicians felt that they were being extended, rather than exploited. His application of an entrepreneurial imagination, coupled with broad experience and a consciousness of the school's community, won the hearts and minds of all he worked with closely, be they bureaucrat or musician.

His highly effective development of Llewellyn's initial concept for the school was there for all to see - a wonderful foundation for the school's halcyon decade of 1985-95 under the more orthodox leadership of John Painter.

Winther initiated the development of the school's early childhood work, and brought European experience to bear in fostering a more rigorous pedagogical approach to string and keyboard teaching at primary and secondary levels. He introduced the excellent Swedish approach to aural and rhythmic training that is still a hallmark of the school's teaching, through importation and encouragement of excellent, thoroughly dedicated staff.

As an administrator he was remarkably quick, yet efficient, never being one to beat around the bush. He delighted in not having a desk in the room that served as his ''office'' (originally conceived as a ''board'' room, now known as the Kingsland Room, in honour of one of the school's founding fathers, Sir Richard Kingsland).

The presence of his favourite Bosendorfer grand piano was something of a statement, although there was a large meeting table at which one might rarely surprise him. More often, he'd be absently tinkling at the piano.

Winther disliked formal meetings, but consulted quite extensively on an individual basis - usually with little notice when one was running late in a tight teaching schedule!

He was a superb musician, with a highly refined yet eclectic musical understanding. At his best and within his repertoire, he was a top-flight pianist, who had the professional sense to know when to withdraw from a performance commitment if administrative duties precluded adequate preparation.

It's not easy to be simultaneously a responsible administrator and a consistent, high-level performer. As an instrumentalist I greatly enjoyed working with him in chamber music, and felt privileged as conductor of the Canberra Youth Orchestra to accompany his solo concerto performances on numerous occasions. Particularly memorable was his performance of that notoriously difficult and rarely performed gem, the Weber Konzertstuck in F minor - an interpretation that brought the work's proto-Romantic program to life with masterful technique and exquisite stylistic conception. This, together with his many other Canberra performances, was a great inspiration to students.

He was also a virtuoso cook - no doubt a product of his family background. I have fond memories of the extraordinary three- and four- course meals he would produce, with minimal assistance, and from a not particularly sophisticated kitchen. A meal at Winther's was a real performance; the best were four-act operas!

In 1985 Winther moved to Hong Kong as professor of keyboard (later dean of music) at the Academy for Performing Arts, where he taught for some years, his performance focusing on chamber music, particularly with Australians John Harding (violin) and Nathan Waks (cello). In 1992 he moved to Queensland, teaching in Brisbane and various regional centres.

Several years ago he returned to Denmark, and although in poor health, performed in a concert in Copenhagen last December.

Winther's seven children (plus one adopted - from five marriages) include the young violinist Kristian Winther, recently appointed as first violin with the Australian String Quartet. Other children are active in Europe as performers and arts administrators. Richard McIntyre

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