Even In Twilight Years, Andrew Davis Brought Lifelong Zest To Podium

Andrew Davis served as music director of the Toronto Symphony from 1975 to 1988, when he became conductor laureate. (Photo by Malcolm Cook)

APPRECIATION — This was a shocker. Not because 80 is an unseemly age at which to make an exit, but because Andrew Davis, the British conductor who died of leukemia on April 20 in Chicago, had cut such a convivially youthful figure onstage for so many decades. 

Only last November, this writer praised a notably non-lethargic performance of Fauré’s Requiem in Toronto as “moving in more senses than one” and took note of his vigorous stride from the wings. If he led the concert seated on a stool, what of it? Many podium veterans do the same.

Presumably, a few insiders knew about his condition, but Davis was not one to make a fuss. He certainly would not let anything stand in the way of connecting music with those who make it and those who hear it.

A resident of Chicago, where he served as as music director and principal conductor of Lyric Opera of Chicago from 2000 to 2021, Davis seemed naturally part of the musical firmament in a few major centers, including London and its environs. From the late 1980s to 2000, he was concurrently music director of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

The latter post came with high expectations in the realm of contemporary music, as well as such redoubtably British assignments as the first public performance (in 1998) of Anthony Payne’s completion of Elgar’s Third Symphony and presiding over the “Last Night of the Proms,” which patriotic duty he performed a dozen times.

In 1982, Davis and the Toronto Symphony played their last concert at Massey Hall before moving to the new Roy Thomson Hall.

Davis imported the “Last Night” tradition to the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, of which he was chief conductor from 2013 to 2019, and conductor laureate thereafter. He held this title also with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and was conductor emeritus of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. Beyond the titled associations, he appeared as a guest with an eye-poppingly premium list of ensembles and opera companies, including the Berlin Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw, Bayreuth, La Scala, and the Metropolitan Opera (where he met his wife, the late American coloratura Gianna Rolandi, in 1984).

Yet he never came across as a jet-setting maestro of divided loyalties. Lyric Opera of Chicago credits him with nearly 700 performances of 62 operas by 22 composers (Berg to Weinberg are listed alphabetically on the company’s website). It says something about his sense of loyalty to old friends that Davis acted as interim artistic director of the TSO from 2018 to 2020, when that organization was undergoing some administrative upheaval.

It was in Toronto that Davis first made a mark. His arrival as music director in 1975 was met by some skepticism among fans who wondered why a little-known Englishman who looked younger than his 31 years was entitled to a post recently occupied by the experienced and respected Karel Ančerl and, before him, the spectacularly talented Seiji Ozawa. Possibly the comparison with Ozawa was more damaging, as it appeared to confirm the status of the TSO as a launching pad for podium upstarts who were destined for better things.

This was not how Davis viewed the assignment. He developed a real fondness for Toronto and the musicians, even acquiring property in the cottage-country region of Ontario, a symbol of middle- to upper-class Canadian identity if ever there was one.

As an artist, Davis was given free rein to program music according to his voracious appetites, which ran to Richard Strauss, Janáček, and Nielsen as well as British music (including challenging scores by Michael Tippett) and the established 19th-century classics. The interpretations were as positive as the personality. No one could accuse Davis of unduly stressing the dark side.

Davis the young conductor

Did he embark on too much Mahler too soon? Possibly, although successful Toronto Symphony recordings of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben (with concertmaster Steven Staryk) still testify to the aptitude of this good-natured former Cambridge organ scholar for big repertoire. He was also a natural accompanist. Among my most vivid teenage memories from Massey Hall (the ancient home of the orchestra) is a stirring Brahms Second Piano Concerto with Gina Bachauer as soloist.

There were important developments outside the concert hall, including a landmark tour of China in 1978 and festival visits to Edinburgh and the Proms. A “Canadian Odyssey” tour taking the orchestra to the far north affirmed national priorities. But as one season followed another, a feeling of inertia settled in. Davis was then just “Andrew” and taken for granted by players who needed tough love. The 1982 opening of Roy Thomson Hall (since renovated) was an acoustic fiasco. A recording contract with CBS Masterworks evaporated. All this while the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal was turning into an international commodity under Charles Dutoit.

For whatever reason, his contract was not renewed, a sore business. In fact, the release from Toronto commitments was a boon to his career, which accelerated in the motherland and elsewhere. Still, Davis remained attached to the TSO, appearing with the orchestra annually for a remarkable run of almost 50 years. TSO subscribers will find it hard to accept a season without his reassuring presence on the podium.

In terms of musical style, Davis was a centrist, with gusts to the retrograde right. In 1988, when orchestras and choral societies were starting to downsize their Messiahs, Davis made a big-boned TSO recording with the redoubtable Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and an operatic quartet led by soprano Kathleen Battle. He later orchestrated the oratorio with a characteristically British mix of reverence and humor. It was this version of Handel’s masterpiece, in December 2023, that occasioned his last public performances in Chicago. A recording of Tippett’s oratorio A Child of our Time, made with the BBC SO, will be released in May next week on the Chandos label.

Tributes, uniformly glowing, have been posted around the world. “A wonderful human being who brought that humanity to his music making,” said Leonard Slatkin, Davis’ successor as chief conductor of the BBC SO.

“Sir Andrew loved the orchestra and wanted to achieve the best possible performances,” TSO concertmaster Jonathan Crow wrote in an email. “He always put performers at ease, allowing them to breathe and create lines with him.

“And of course his rehearsals were filled with instances of his trademark wit. Whether we were rehearsing Mozart, Strauss, or Berg, there was always an opportunity for a laugh and a chance to relax while exploring the music together.” 

It remains to be mentioned that Davis was an accomplished organist who introduced a great Canadian piece, Ernest MacMillan’s Cortège Académique, to the international repertoire with a recital recording made in 1984 in Thomson Hall. A formidable Latinist, he filled idle hours during the pandemic by translating the Aeneid into English. As a composer, he contributed La Serenissima, a luminous orchestral portrait of Venice.

Andrew Davis leading the Toronto Symphony in Handel’s ‘Messiah’ in 2015 (Photo by Malcolm Cook)

No question, Andrew Davis was a person of many parts. Yet his philosophy as a musician was straightforward.

“Some people say to me, ‘What is the conductor’s most important job?’” Davis commented in a TSO video interview. “My feeling is that I always want to make an orchestra be more in love with the music they’re playing and play it with more commitment and passion and excitement.

“Music represents…the whole gamut of human experience. And that’s what gets audiences really excited and moved.

“The legacy of the orchestral repertoire is enormous. It covers so many periods, so many styles, and so many emotional states. It is a privilege, actually. That’s certainly what drives me and inspires me.

“I just love what I do for a living.”