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Sir Andrew Davis: The returning hero
Sir Andrew Davis
The Proms just wouldn’t be the same without Andrew Davis, says John Allison – as the BBC Symphony Orchestra's one-time chief conductor heads back to Britain
By John Allison
No orchestra making its Proms debut could wish for a better guide to that institution’s rituals than Sir Andrew Davis, one of the most familiar faces in recent Proms history and a particular favourite of Last Nightaudiences. Happily for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Davis was appointed its chief conductor last year and has lost no time in leading it on this month’s short European tour, beginning at the Proms and also including the Edinburgh Festival.
The MSO is a distinguished orchestra – Australia’s oldest, founded in 1906 – and Melbourne is, of course, a wonderful city, but what drew Davis there? It’s not exactly a bus ride from Chicago, the British conductor’s home base since 2000, when he became music director of Lyric Opera of Chicago. Davis, 70, admits that the travel is “a pain”, but makes it clear that nothing can keep him away.
“I went there to conduct first in 2009, and absolutely fell in love,” he says. “Our first programme included Elgar's Falstaff, a very demanding piece which they didn’t know, but they played it superbly. So I went back, and they started to twist my arm. I adore the city, and the people – it’s a very exciting place, and they are a great audience. I also have a cousin near Melbourne, so it’s an added bonus that we have time to spend together on each of my visits. My diary has been horrendous, but from 2016 I’m arranging things so that I can have at least a week on either side of the concerts, and not dive straight in.” Davis sees his new post as a logical development in his lengthy career. “I’m a believer in fate. And, in fact, I’ve held very few posts, but just held them for a long time – the Toronto Symphony Orchestra for 13 years,Glyndebourne for 12, the BBC Symphony Orchestra for 11. Now I’ve extended my contract in Chicago, which will take me up to 21 years there. So although I’ve been standing in front of orchestras for some 42 seasons, Melbourne is still only my third orchestral post. This sense of continuity is important to me.”
How would Davis describe the Melbourne sound? “They have terrific strings, the basis for any orchestra, and some really wonderful solo players. They perform with great virtuosity, but what really sets them apart is their love of what they do. Not all orchestras manage this. There’s a terrific work ethic there, one of the reasons I’m so crazy about them.”
The orchestra’s virtuosic sound makes it, of course, a fine vehicle for the music of Richard Strauss, who features on every programme of the current tour.
Davis has long been admired as a conductor of Strauss’s operas, and a new project with ABC Classics is allowing him to record the Strauss tone poems with the MSO. The first release, out this month, also includes the Four Last Songs with the soprano Erin Wall – only Davis’s second recording of the work, following his famous disc with Kiri Te Kanawa in the late Seventies. Wall sings the Four Last Songs in Edinburgh.
Edinburgh will also get to hear the Australian-born Percy Grainger’s “music to an imaginary ballet”, The Warriors. “It’s his longest single work, with that muscular quality – and bellicose character – that I love about Grainger. It was originally written for the Ballets Russes, but for one reason or another they didn’t do it. I’m sad we’re not also playing it in London. The Prommers would go mad for it!”
Fittingly enough, Grainger’s father designed that Melbourne landmark, Princes Bridge, which spans the Yarra River right beside the orchestra’s home. Though Australian audiences have mixed feelings about a composer who grew up there but made his career abroad, Davis says he and the MSO are proud to be playing the music. “Actually, I’m proud of everything here, especially of us showing the world what the MSO can do.”