Despite Sir Andrew Davis becoming music director emeritus at Lyric Opera over a year ago, you won’t see him back this season at the company he led as music director for over two decades, from 2000-2021.
Davis will, however, return to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for Christmas-week performances of his own orchestration of Handel’s “Messiah.” It will be a homecoming despite the fact that the British-born Davis has an international conducting career that remains active, Chicago remains his home base. Aside from having first conducted at Lyric Opera in 1987, Davis has conducted the CSO downtown and at Ravinia for some twenty-seven eclectic programs across nearly fifty years, since the 1974-75 season.
“I’m enjoying my semi-retirement,” says Davis. “I’m leaving tomorrow for London where I’m doing a couple of concerts with students at the Royal College of Music. Then I’m back for a few days and then going to Toronto with my old band there.” Davis was music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra from 1975 to 1988 and has been its conductor laureate since. “I am home for a few days and then go to Manchester to do a concert and record some of the Bach transcriptions that I’ve made. Then there’s the ‘Messiah’ back at the Chicago Symphony for Christmas.”
Indeed, Chicago for Davis, is home. “I had thought when I left Lyric that I might go back to England,” Davis admits. “But I’ve lived here for twenty-three years and have so many friends here. And my son is here, that’s the main thing. And he’s not going anywhere, so neither am I.” Davis’ son is composer, baritone and conductor Ed Frazier Davis, whose mother is Davis’ late wife, soprano and former Ryan Opera Center director Gianna Rolandi. “There’s so much going on in the city. A lot of restaurants that I’m very fond of. My son and I have dinner once a week. We keep trying new places. We went to a Greek restaurant yesterday.”
A big change for Davis was leaving his longtime downtown apartment and moving into a home last June. “I suddenly said to myself, ‘Why am I still in this apartment building looking at other apartment buildings? I don’t need to be downtown anymore.’ I now live in a house in Old Irving Park. And I’m as happy as a clam. Front porch, back porch and a ten-minute walk from my son.”
Does Davis still go to Lyric Opera?
“I didn’t go to everything last year by any means, but I went quite a lot. I went to ‘The Flying Dutchman’ this year and I’ll be going to see ‘Daughter of the Regiment’ and ‘Jenufa’ as well. It’s being conducted by one of my favorite conductors in the entire world, Jakub Hruša, a Czech conductor. He is quite wonderful and as you probably know, in 2025 he’s going to succeed Tony Pappano as the music director of Covent Garden. He’s fabulous. And a lovely man.”
Does Davis have any thoughts about “The Flying Dutchman” that he cares to share?
“Well, it wasn’t my favorite production. I’m sorry, the opera doesn’t end with Erik shooting Senta. I’m sorry. Moving right along.”
Does Davis think that his successor and Lyric’s current music director Enrique Mazzola is going to become a Wagnerian? Lyric’s first music director and Davis’ predecessor Bruno Bartoletti did Wagner rarely, mostly leaving that epic and complex repertoire for established Wagner conductors.
“Really, I have no idea. It was his first Wagner as indeed, it was mine. I had done Act I of ‘Walküre’ before but I’d never done any other Wagner operas before I came here and did ‘Dutchman.’”
Davis went on to conduct virtually all of the major Wagner operas at Lyric, including a 2005 revival of Lyric’s original “Ring” cycle. He also led most of a new cycle that was to have culminated in the premiere of its “Götterdämmerung” and three complete “Ring” cycles in 2020.
“We were due to open the third week of April. On March 13, we basically played through ‘Rheingold’ and it was very emotional because I knew exactly what was going to happen. Anthony [Freud, Lyric general director] was going to talk to the company at two o’clock and we all knew what he was going to say. And then we all went home.
“Losing the ‘Ring’ is the most devastating thing that can happen to a company or to a Maestro. I was in mourning. The first three operas were so successful. I loved David Pountney’s productions, we had great casts, everything. And my orchestra was playing like gods. I was so proud of them. That was that.
“It was very odd because there was no music in my head, which is unprecedented. So after a while I thought, ‘What can I do?’ So you know what I did? I started something that I always thought that I might do if I finally retired. I started translating ‘The Aeneid.’ Virgil. It took me a year and four months to finish. It’s huge. Twelve books. But I did it. And I’m rather proud of it, actually. I’m deciding whether I should try and publish it.”
Kind of like doing one’s own orchestration of Handel’s “Messiah?” Davis laughs and then elaborates on that project.
“I actually started on September 5, 2009, and I finished it on October 8, 2010. So it took me a year and a month but I was doing it while I was very busy. The biggest chunk of it I did in Santa Fe when I was doing operas there in June and July of 2010. So actually all of Part II I did in Santa Fe. A big chunk of it I did in Chicago at the beginning of the season until Christmas. The Nativity recitatives I did staying with some friends in Italy. ‘Glory to God’ was done in Glasgow and at Dublin Airport. ‘His yoke is easy,’ the last chorus of Part I, was done in New York and Melbourne. ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ was written in Bergen in Norway. ‘And the trumpet shall sound’ was written in Besançon in France where I was the president of the jury at a conductor’s competition. So I wrote it just about everywhere.”
What did Davis feel “Messiah” needed that compelled him to undertake such a massive project?
“The ‘Messiah’ doesn’t need anything. It’s wonderful as it is. It’s just that I had done it a couple of times and I thought, ‘You know, I’d like to do something different.’ I had done it twice in Toronto so this would have been the third time. So I had this idea of actually using the modern orchestra with all its colors. There’s alto flute in it, there’s oboe d’amore, even marimba. I’ve done some other transcriptions. I’m doing some Bach transcriptions that I’m going to record for Chandos.
“There are some radical things in it like ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ starts with a clarinet solo, for instance. I always emphasize that I did this with the deepest respect for the piece. For instance, everything that Handel wrote for the trumpets and the timpani are there, but they do plenty of other stuff as well. And there’s no continuo instrument, all the harmonic things are written out. No harpsichord, but there is organ in it. The organ is sometimes used as a continuo instrument, but not a great deal. It’s usually reserved for the bigger climaxes. And I’ve written quite a bit for harp which I suppose you could say is sort of continuo, but not really. The piece only has three horns. I’m not quite sure why I did that. This was not going to be in Baroque style, this was going to be a twentieth, twenty-first century style. I think color was the most important element that I wanted to develop, to clothe the music in all the hues that one has available.
“There’s a sequence of three choruses in Part Two, ‘Surely he hath borne our griefs,’ ‘And with his stripes we are healed’ and ‘All we like sheep.’ The first one starts with strings and a very bright organ sound, the winds come in with the chorus. But then the second one is a fugue just accompanied by winds, no strings. But then ‘All we like sheep’ suddenly has this very bright color with celeste and glockenspiel. Actually, I put a bleat in there but I only do it in rehearsals just so the orchestra and chorus get a laugh, I never do it in performances. So those are three very different colors. And then there’s the tenor recitative ‘He trusted in God,’ which I make very angry, starting with snarling trombones. So I try to sometimes emphasize the emotional content with the color.
“There is the so-called Beecham version, which I did look at. It wasn’t made by Beecham, but by Eugene Goossen. And it’s extremely thick and stodgy and unwieldy. I did set out for clarity. People do the Mozart version which I personally find very fascinating but not really convincing, funnily enough. Mozart changes some things harmonically. The most extraordinary thing is ‘The trumpet shall sound’ is played by a horn player!
“I hope people will find this deeply respectful. I approached it having held the piece in awe, it’s fantastic. What I’ve done is clothe it in all the colors that are available with the contemporary orchestra, but without changing a single note. I hope people will enjoy hearing that. This is in no way intended to supplant the original. It’s just an occasional alternative because ‘Messiah’ gets done every year.”
Meanwhile, will we be seeing Davis conducting back at Lyric Opera anytime soon?
“I hope so. I must say I loved coming back for ‘Hansel and Gretel,’ one of my five favorite operas. Going back to the orchestra and seeing what wonderful colors they can make, it was such a treat.”
Does Davis have thoughts about who might replace Lyric general director Anthony Freud now that he has announced his early retirement after the current season?
“No, I haven’t the faintest idea, frankly. I don’t believe that it will be anyone within the company, but I don’t know. I mean, I may be wrong, but I don’t believe so. When Bill [Mason] took over for Ardis [Krainik], that was sort of a no-brainer. Not that there weren’t other people that applied. There was a very distinguished person who did an interview, but ended up– saying, ‘Actually, I don’t want the job, Bill should have it.’
“Of course, I care very much about who would take over the company. These are difficult times. Boards seem to like people who are good at bottom lines. I don’t want an accountant in the job, thank you very much. I want someone who has great artistic vision and ambitions.”
Handel’s “Messiah,” December 21-23, Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center, 220 South Michigan, cso.org.
Dennis Polkow is an award-winning veteran journalist, critic, author, broadcaster and educator. He made his stage debut at age five, was a child art prodigy and began playing keyboards in clubs at the age of fourteen. He holds degrees in music theory, composition, religious studies and philosophy from DePaul University in Chicago. Polkow spent his early years performing and recording in rock and jazz bands while concertizing as a classical pianist, organist and harpsichordist and composing, arranging and producing for other artists. As a scholar, Polkow has published and lectured extensively and taught at several colleges and universities in various departments. As an actor, narrator and consultant, Polkow has been involved with numerous films, plays, broadcasts and documentaries. As a journalist, Polkow helped co-create the experiential Chicago Musicale and Spotlight, the award-winning tabloid arts and entertainment section of the Press Publications chain of newspapers, which he later edited. He also created and ran the nationally recognized journalism program at Oakton College and was faculty advisor to its award-winning student newspaper; many former students went on to major media careers, including Channel Awesome’s the Nostalgia Critic. Polkow’s research, interviews, features, reviews and commentaries have appeared across national and international media and he has corresponded from the Middle East, Asia and Africa for the Chicago Tribune. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org