Lyric Opera of Chicago created something of a stir when it announced that longtime music director and principal conductor Sir Andrew Davis would step down at the end of the 2020-21 season.
“I will have been here for 21 years, which is a pretty good stint,” the esteemed English maestro told the Chicago Sun-Times. “It’s time for me to give myself a little more free time. People say to me, ‘You know, there are other things in life.’ Maybe I’ll find a little place and grow vegetables.”
But for the moment, Davis is not slowing down in the least. In April and May, he will lead Lyric Opera’s much-anticipated presentation of Wagner’s massive, 15-hour set of four operas, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). And from Jan. 30 through Feb. 4, he will serve as guest conductor for a set of four concerts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Featured will be Beethoven’s Piano Concertos No. 1 and 4 with soloist Paul Lewis and the orchestra’s premieres of two short works by noted 20th-century English composer Sir Michael Tippett.
Davis has been a regular on the Chicago Symphony podium since 1975. In December of the following year, he led a second set of subscription concerts that included Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7. During the first rehearsal, after playing through the exposition of the first movement, he stopped the orchestra and said something along the lines of: “The brass section is justly world famous, but I’d like to hear everybody else.” Considering that Davis was 32 at the time and still building his reputation, it showed considerable moxie to make such a statement in front of this world-famous ensemble.
“There was a shuffling of feet from the stage,” he said. “I looked over the brass, and then they started to smile, and I thought I got away with it. I thought, ‘It’s only because of my English accent.’ But yes, I over the years, I’ve very much enjoyed coming back here. I’ve done things at Ravinia and of course here [in Orchestra Hall]. I remember very well, for instance, a marvelous performance of [the oratorio] A Child of Our Time by Michael Tippett we did here a few years ago, and many other things, so it’s nice to be back.”
Davis served as music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra from 1975 through 1988, when he was named to the same position with the famed Glyndebourne Festival outside London. A year later, he became chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He stepped down from both positions in 2000 to come to the Lyric Opera. More recently, he also served as music director of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, concluding his tenure at the end of December after seven years in that post.
Because he has spent so much time in both worlds, a question that Davis often hears is: “Do you prefer conducting symphony concerts or operas?” And his answer is: neither. “I mean, I love them both,” he said. “They’re all different aspects of reproducing, interpreting whatever great music, but I think that the two complement each other.”
In terms of dramatic timing, he said, he can carry things he has learned from the theater to his symphony conducting. He cited the example of a moment in Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony when the bassoon (or in some cases, the bass clarinet) performs a disappearing phrase before the allegro vivo section. “How long do you wait?” he said. “I think somehow working in the theater will help you make those tiny split second decisions. That can make all the difference.”
What in part has kept Davis going in his long and fertile career is his often evident joy of music-making. He seeks to constantly remind everyone with whom he works what a privilege it is to be involved with the great musical works he conducts. “How do I approach an orchestra, or how do I approach making music?” he said. “That’s it. The whole basis for me is waking up and saying, ‘Oh, I’m going to conduct The Barber of Seville today. Aren’t I lucky? Or, you know, I’m going to conduct Wozzeck.’ The whole diversity of the repertoire is so exciting and exhilarating.”
Even as he moves into what he calls his “maturity” — he turns 76 on Feb. 2 — Davis is still discovering new aspects of compositions he has known his whole life, and those discoveries help propel him forward and add to the fulfillment he gets from conducting.
“I’ve done some of the pieces like The Marriage of Figaro quite a few times in my life and every time you come back to it, one is astonished by the virtuosity of the composition for one thing, but also just the sense that you get from Mozart,” he said. “The incredibly perceptive way he looks at us, and not just perceptive, but also so sympathetic. The end The Marriage of Figaro when finally, the Countess forgives the Count, is one of the most profoundly moving things in the whole of art.
“We get to do this? What can be better?”