George Ellis is quite unique in the music world. Who else loved The Beatles at age 4 and finished off conducting a motley mixture of music (including classical) for a living. And arranges songs to boot! And is a composer! And is so energetic, he could pass for a 15 year old! What else can I say? Oh yes, he conducted at the 2000 Sydney Olympics! He’s also had a hand in the music for the Bruce Beresford’s movies Mao’s Last Dancer and Ladies in Black.
I catch up with Ellis at his daughter’s flat where he’s baby-sitting his grandson. I congratulate him for being one of the few celebrities who answer their fan’s comments on Facebook. “I know this may sound ingenuous,” he says, “but I don’t do it for my own gratification….people react positively to my social media posts and I think it’s a nice thing that they’ve taken the time – even though it’s not much effort – but it’s still a thought….that’s one of the good things of social media.”
I remind him that he was involved in the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. He, together with Simone Young, conducted at the opening of the games and became good friends. That was followed, in 2001, with Young asking Ellis to be her assistant at Opera Australia. “She’s probably one of the best conductors I’ve ever known.” I inform him that I was the catalyst that saw Young perform her first conducting stint at Lane Cove in 1983. He seemed to think that was very impressive. “I would have that at the top of my CV,” he raves, “It’s really good to know. I would be proclaiming it to everyone!” Ellis was Young’s deputy for one year. However, he never conducted an opera but was fully occupied in taking rehearsals. One day, he hopes, he will.
Born in Australia and living in Marrickville for most of his formative years, he went to school in Leichhardt. He discovered music at age 4 with the Beatles album Sergeant Pepper Lonely Heart’s Club Band which his father passed on to him because he had no liking for it. “I played it and loved it,” he recalls, “I was absolutely transfixed by the music and the beautiful sounds. I remember watching TV and this group were playing music from Zoot – one was just standing there with a microphone, two others playing guitar or a bass guitar plugged to an amplifier (not that I knew what an amplifier was) and then there was someone at the back hitting things. You know, these round things…..which of course were drums.”
“I was always attracted,” he continues, “to this thing called music and the sound it made. My older brother was learning piano at the time….so I hassled my parents for lessons. I pestered them until they sent me to a piano teacher…when I went to High School I met others who could play music, so we got together and formed bands and wrote songs. At the time I knew rock music from The Beatles and Rolling Stones but I didn’t know Bach or Mozart or Beethoven yet.”
To enlarge his knowledge of music Ellis went to the Sydney Conservatorium where he played cello and piano and classical guitar. “I was also introduced to a subject they called ‘conducting’. I became really fascinated by this art. My lecturer encouraged me to keep going with it…and then he organised a scholarship in the United States so I could get a Master’s Degree and I did that and I came back to Australia in 1990 to pursue a career in conducting and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
These days Ellis still does arranging and conducting. He conducts his 28 to 45 piece orchestra with musicians he’s recruited from the Sydney Conservatorium and ex-members of the Sydney Youth Orchestra. Some of them double-up with the Sydney Symphony.
He has arranged music of Abba, David Bowie and the Bee Gees. But his greatest satisfaction is arranging for his Hooked on Classics concerts whose original recordings were made famous by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. His arrangements of the music are partly based on the LPO material and when he first asked them about the music they responded with “we own the music but we don’t really have the arrangements.” They’d been arranged, they went on to say, but because it was all done in pre-computer days the copies were never retained. And so they sent Ellis what they had, which turned out to be “scribbled, chopped up notes. “ Basically I had to listen to the recordings,” says Ellis, “and write the arrangements out again.”
But the Hooked on Classics concerts are slightly different from what you’d expect. George Ellis again: “Part of the concert involves original classics. So, for example, we do Brahms’ Hungarian Dances and we do the Brindisi from La Traviata and we do that in the original format. The rest of the programme is the Hooked on Classics like Hooked on Mozart, Mendelssohn etc.” Classics with a beat.
Currently Ellis is on a sabbatical for 6 weeks. His next project is his and Justine Clarke’s composition for children entitled Mimi’s Symphony – on January 18, 2020 at the Melbourne Recital Centre – in which the narrator takes you (and your children, hopefully) through the enchanted world of orchestral instruments. Next Ellis renews his collaboration with his old chum Steve Kilbey (front man of the alt-rock band The Church) in the world premiere of Kilbey’s latest album Sydney Rococo, a homage to Kilbey’s favourite city in which he rhapsodises on “ songs for a banker or for a tramp, songs about seediness and the sea…the summers, the dreams, the vegetation – always pushing skywards… filtered through lush orchestras and sighing voices.” The concert is part of the Sydney Festival and will take place at the Sydney Recital Hall on January 19.
The next Hooked on Classics concerts are at the Sydney Recital Hall on 27 June 2020. The concerts are at 3pm and 7pm. Shall we see you then?