Because of his demanding responsibilities as music director and principal conductor of Lyric Opera of Chicago and chief conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis does not have an abundance of free time. But the Chicago-based British conductor still manages each year to squeeze in a series of guest conducting engagements, and they are typically with orchestras with which he has a long history.
One such example is the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which he first led in 1975, the same year he took over as music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra — a post he held through 1988. His most recent appearance with the orchestra came Oct. 15, when he led a one-night program with celebrated pianist Evgeny Kissin as soloist in Tchaikovsky’s beloved Piano Concerto No. 1.
Davis, 72, will next conduct the CSO on July 16 at the Ravinia Festival, something he has not done since 2008. The program will feature Alicia Weilerstein, the well-regarded winner of a 2011 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” as soloist in Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor, Op. 85, one of Davis’ favorite works. “We’ve only worked together one time before, and it was actually in Detroit, where she played the Walton [Concerto] with me. So I’m looking forward to this,” he said from Detroit, where he was in the midst of a series of concerts with the orchestra there.
The Ravinia concert will open with Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, one of a group of British masterpieces for string orchestra, including those by Edward Elgar and Michael Tippett. “For some reason, string orchestra seems to be a medium that English composers took to,” Davis said.
Rounding out the program will be Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67. Even though it is one of the most popular and oft-performed of all symphonies, it has actually been something of an outlier for Davis, at least in recent years. “I haven’t conducted Beethoven 5 for a long time, so I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “And it’s a crowd-pleaser, which they always want.”
Before that July concert, Chicago audiences will have another opportunity to see Davis in action. He will be on the Orchestra Hall podium June 6 for a season-ending concert featuring the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, a pre-professional training orchestra affiliated with the CSO, and singers from the Ryan Opera Center, Lyric Opera’s artist-development program. (This special concert should not be confused with Lyric’s annual Rising Stars in Concert, which features Ryan Center performers and is presented at the Civic Opera House.) “It’s something in principle that we’d like to do on a fairly regular basis,” Davis said, “because I think the feeling is that if the raison d’être of the Civic Orchestra is to prepare people [musicians] for as much of the repertoire as possible, then the idea of doing some operatic music is certainly à propos. I think it’s very good for them to work with singers and to realize the issues of balance and listening carefully. There’s no substitute for it, really.”
The Shakespeare-themed program will open with the overture from Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict, and continues with two duets from the opera, which is based closely on “Much Ado About Nothing.” Next up will be the little-known overture to French composer Ambroise Thomas’ Raymond, ou Le secret de la Reine, and two excerpts from Thomas’ Hamlet. The second half will open with the all-orchestral love scene from Romeo and Juliet, which Berlioz described in his memoirs as his favorite among all his works. The program will continue with duets from Walton’s Troilus and Cressida, and Vaughan Williams’ Sir John in Love, ending with Act 1, Scene 2, from Verdi’s Falstaff. “It’s the one [scene] that ends with this marvelous ensemble where the women sing in 6/8 [meter] and the men sing in 2/2, so it’s a very dangerous ensemble,” Davis said.
The conductor acknowledged that overseeing this concert will be more difficult than many he leads, because he will not have seasoned professionals either on stage or in the pit, and that could lead to a bit more unpredictability. “Some of this music is very tricky,” he said. “And some of this music I’m doing for the first time myself. I’ve never conducted Thomas’ Hamlet. I’ve done Béatrice et Bénédict, but I’ve never done Troilus and Cressida, or the Vaughan Williams, either. So it’s new repertoire for me, but that’s sort of par for the course. It’s a really interesting program in terms of range of style, and also I think it will show off the singers well and give the orchestra something they can get their teeth into.”
While Davis might be described as a semi-regular with the CSO, his history of concerts there pales in comparison against his record with the Toronto Symphony. He returned there this year for his 42nd consecutive season, a streak that began even before he took over as its music director. He also annually conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with which he holds the title of conductor laureate, and has regular engagements with the Liverpool Philharmonic and Bergen Philharmonic in Norway.
Davis also typically makes at least one appearance each season with the Proms, a summer concert series presented at London’s Royal Albert Hall. This year, he will lead the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a program July 26 that will include the world premiere of Anthony Payne’s Of Land, Sea and Sky. Davis is a fan of Albert Hall, a circular concert venue that was dedicated by Queen Victoria in 1871. “I think it’s my favorite concert hall in London, which is not saying a great deal, because I really don’t like either the Festival Hall or the Barbican,” he said. “But the Proms is something special, and I go back all the time. I used to just go up to London on the train all the time to attend the Proms when I was a teenager.”
What appears infrequently on Davis’ guest-conducting lineup is opera. His schedule does not allow the multi-week periods necessary for rehearsals and repeat performances. A notable exception came in 2014-15 at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, when he conducted soprano Renée Fleming in The Merry Widow, a production that later came to Lyric Opera. “Enlivened by sprightly dancing,” wrote music critic Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times, “this colorful production is mostly faithful to the style of the piece. And from the glowing, subtle performance that the conductor Andrew Davis coaxed from the Met orchestra, it’s clear that he loves the 1905 score.”
But if operatic guest-conducting is a rarity for Davis, he is not complaining. “I’m kind of happy with that at the moment,” he said. “With what I do at Lyric, that’s certainly enough opera.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.