Farewell Symphony

British Ambassador John Macgregor Plays a Closing Cadence to his Time in Vienna

On The Town | Matthias Wurz, Dardis McNamee | September 2007

Ambassador Macgregor bids farewell to a special guest at the party (Photo: British Embassy)

Diplomats never get to stay anywhere for long. Thus, it came as no surprise that the British Ambassador to Austria John Macgregor – musician extraordinaire – left Vienna in August 2007, after four years. But that didn’t make it any easier.

"I lift myself above – in a Buddhist sense," he said, "As a diplomat, your life is made up at these patches. But I don’t think I have ever stayed anywhere in my whole career longer than here in Vienna," he added, and smiled. He was appointed ambassador to Austria in 2001, and arrived in Vienna in May of the same year.


It has been a special bond he had with the city, as he has not only served as a diplomat, but shared in the city’s musical life. A trained musician and musicologist, and former organ scholar at Balliol College, Oxford, Macgregor plays the piano with a passion that has never left him, pursued throughout his 33-year diplomatic career.

In Vienna, "music-making" has a special flavour to it, and Ambassador Macgregor acknowledged this tradition by organising informal Hauskonzerte at his residence in Vienna’s 3rd District, where he would also regularly perform on the piano.

So for his own farewell, Hausmusik was the thing, and Macgregor organized a concert and garden party, inviting several talented young musicians to perform with him on a balmy summer evening in mid July.

"As in tennis, it is important to have good partners," he said as he set the scene. We were joined by British soprano Summer Watson and the Bolivian-born violinist Oscar Bohorquez both worthy partners and then some.

Watson is an event. Glorious to look at, with a soulful face under cascades of blonde hair, in a white satin gown falling perfectly over her slim hips, the music seems to pour out of her, bringing a Puccini-like melting warmth to the Spanish songs that opened the program. Accompanied by very able Huw Rhys James at the piano, her range was very wide, ranging from the Italian Opera and Spanish canción, to Lieder of Richard Strauss and a group of lyrical and touching English Songs.  All in all, it was a demanding programme, perhaps too demanding.

("A singer with that much talent has got to be very careful about how she plans her career," commented one visitor later, an agent, to a companion at the reception. "She’s showing a huge range of possibilities. For a young person at the beginning of a career, it’s too much.)

In between, Ambassador Macgregor accompanied violinist Oscar Bohorquez, an interesting contrast in his formal black suit and a long ponytail, on an energetic and passionate late Mozart Violin Sonata.

"We will only play the first two movements," the Ambassador said apologetically. There had not been enough time to prepare the rapid-fire final movement. However, this did nothing to diminish the audience’s enthusiasm, and Bohorquez’s exquisite, floating sound from the borrowed Stradavari dissolved into the Baroque elegance of the room.

Listening, it was hard to believe Macgregor was really going to retreat to a quiet life. No, he admits. Not quite yet.

"Like most people of my age, I am really not going to retire," he said, a twinkle flashing from his eye, a man who enjoys life. "I am certainly not looking forward to doing nothing," Macgregor will take on the position as Dean to the British University of Kent in Brussels, an international graduate research institute, something he is very much looking forward to. There he hopes to pursue his work in the area of human rights, which he considers the most important contribution of his diplomatic years.

"The genocide in Rwanda in 1994, where the world only watched and did not act, was an important turning point," Macgregor said later in an interview. Consequently, the NATO air strikes on former Yugoslavia in spring 1999, the intervention in Afghanistan in the Fall of 2001 and the war against Iraq in 2003 were mobilizing examples of that for him.

"Of course," he quickly adds, "in case of Iraq the planning of the future for Iraq after the war was absolute disaster by any standards," though Macgregor rejects the idea of an immediate withdrawal, as it would lead to a complete collapse of the country.

If the opportunity arises, he will also be organising musical events there.

"I have always done something like that. But," he said looking around the room, "of course, you have to tailor it to the circumstances."

When stationed in India in the 1970s, he played the sitar, "sitting on the roof of my house because that was an Indian thing to do." In Prague back in the 1980s where they had a very high ceiling room and two pianos, he was able to put on a variety of musical events, "including the performance of a Glen Miller-style jazz band, which gives you a feel for the enormity of the place," he said.

While the last notes of Benjamin Britten’s arrangement of the Irish folk song, ‘Down by the Sally Gardens’ faded away, and the audience gradually made its way into the garden for a drink and conversation, it was hard not to realise the loss Macgregor’s leaving would mean for the Viennese musical life.

Outside, we found literature professor Susan Döring standing at a table sipping on a glass of Sekt orange and nibbling on canapés. An amateur pianist and regular at British Embassy events, she knew Macgregor would be a nearly impossible act to follow.

"He carved a very special place for himself and for British culture in Viennese society," she commented. "To be quite frank, there are so many diplomatic cocktail parties, and after a while they all start to seem the same.

"Macgregor, raised the diplomatic cocktail party to something very artistic. These concerts where he actually took part – exceptionally good music and also jolly good fun. This is the art of hospitality."

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    the vienna review September 2007