Vale James Hannah

Housemaster Dr Luke Harley pays a worthy tribute to a dynamic music educator
who left an enduring legacy on Grammar’s musical culture.


James Peter McKillop Hannah OAM, Head of Music at Grammar between 1979 and 1990, passed away peacefully in Port Macquarie on November 6, 2021. He was 88 years old. A larger-than-life figure with a deep passion for the arts, Hannah is fondly remembered at Grammar for the series of Gilbert and Sullivan operas that were staged annually under his direction in the 1980s. These productions – among them The Pirates of Penzance (1982), The Gondoliers (1983), Yeomen of the Guard (1984), H.M.S. Pinafore (1985), The Mikado (1987) and Iolanthe (1988) – galvanized the whole Grammar community and led to lifelong memories for those involved.

As Susan Khouri, a string teacher at Grammar during this period, remembers: “James put music on the map in a big way. He was an entertaining character to be around, and he taught music theatre amazingly well. Music poured out of him – he was a fine conductor, actor and choreographer, having been educated at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and the Guildhall School of Music – and his productions were full of energy and joy.”

Hannah’s greatest gift, according to Khouri, was his ability to get teenagers to simply relax on stage and perform their parts. Thomas Barlow (OS 1988), Ko-Ko in The Mikado, agrees, recalling Hannah’s warmth and inclusivity, his “joie de vivre, humour and big emotions.” After hearing of Hannah’s passing last November, Barlow joined fellow soloists from The Mikado and Iolanthe for a dinner at Bill and Toni’s to pay homage to their former conductor. “Everyone at that dinner – pupils from Grammar and Kambala who hadn’t seen each other for 30 years – agreed that performing in James’ operas had been life-changing,”

Barlow recalls. “James had exacting standards, but he always tried to make music as enriching and enjoyable as possible. Interestingly two of the leads in those productions, Brydon Stace and Daniella Ehrlich, ended up as professional singers.”

Apart from his conducting, Hannah was a fine singing teacher, drawing on years of experience at British schools prior to coming to Grammar. Under his leadership boys volunteered for the School’s vocal ensembles in record numbers, and the School Choir went from strength to strength. It was Hannah, too, who appointed Vladimir Khusid in 1988, thereby initiating the establishment of Grammar’s jazz programme.

Hannah retired from secondary education in 1993 and moved north to the Hastings region in NSW. He became a well-known figure in and around Port Macquarie, mentoring singing pupils, conducting the Sinfonia Orchestra Mid North Coast, establishing the Sinfonia–James Hannah Scholarship, and directing and performing in 26 musical productions with the Port Macquarie Players’ Theatre. He also loved to travel and made numerous trips to England to visit his cherished nieces and their families.

Hannah received an OAM for services to community music on the Mid-North Coast in June 2015. The Grammar community is deeply saddened to hear of his passing.

Image: James Hannah in 2015 photo courtesy of Port Macquarie News