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Andrew Davis, who led the Toronto Symphony Orchestra for 13 years, dead at 80

Andrew Davis, the acclaimed British conductor who led the Toronto Symphony Orchestra for 13 years, has died. He was 80.

Davis died Saturday at Rusk Institute in Chicago from leukemia, his manager, Jonathan Brill of Opus 3 Artists, said Sunday. Davis had been managing the disease for nearly two years, but it became acute shortly after his 80th birthday on Feb. 2.

Davis, knighted in Britain in 1999, was most recently music director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

The TSO was in search of a music director after Karel Ančerl, who had died in 1973, and they landed on Davis two years later. While just over 30 at the time, he had already gained experience by then in prominent roles with the BBC’s Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

“It just seemed right,” Davis told the Toronto Star in 2015. “I’d had many jobs, but I was ready to have an orchestra of my own.”

Among the highlights of Davis’s tenure was a late 1970s TSO tour of several cities in China, with legendary Canadian opera singer Maureen Forrester.

‘Immense musical talent’

The conductor was recognized by then-mayor Art Eggleton on Andrew Davis Day in 1984, “in salute to the genius and artistic insight of a great maestro.”

“Maestro Davis raised the global profile of the TSO, leading tours of Europe, China, Northern Canada, and Australia,” the TSO said in a statement on Sunday. “We remember his passion, his immense musical talent, his infectious laugh, and his huge heart which he shared generously with all of us.”

Davis’s tenure was not without challenge. His first wife soon returned to England, and the conductor began a relationship with a symphony bassist.

The Globe and Mail also noted in a late 1970s profile that Davis was “notoriously forgetful; batons and briefcases have been left behind from Victoria and Vienna.”

A musical conductor wearing glasses is shown with his mouth open in a black and white photograph.
Davis is shown in an unspecified performance in England on July 21, 1978. (Evening Standard/Getty Images)

But Davis continued his relationship with the TSO through the years, returning to the city with select performances, and in 2018 became interim director for two years, bridging the gap between the departed Peter Oundjian and current director Gustavo Gimeno.

“I am grateful for all the moments I shared with him since he welcomed me in Toronto,” Gimeno said in a social media post on Sunday. “He was warm, cheerful, insightful and humble.… His unforgettable and unique laughter [and twinkle in his eye] would always transform the atmosphere and get the best out of people around him.

Davis’s tenure as TSO musical director was the third longest, after Ernest MacMillan and Oundjian.

“His extensive recording catalogue with the TSO included Tchaikovsky, Strauss, Borodin, Sibelius, Fauré, Holst, Berlioz, multiple Handel Messiahs (including his own arrangement),” the TSO said of Davis on Sunday.

With Davis leading, the TSO won a Juno in 2021 for best classical album: vocal or choral for Massenet: Thais.

Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins, who shared in that Juno win, paid tribute on Sunday.

“I feel so fortunate to have worked with such a generous soul,” said Hopkins. “Sir Andrew was a passionate musician who led from his heart. I will miss him dearly.”

Extensive resumé 

Davis’s extensive resumé included serving as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 1989-2000 and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra from 2013-19, and music director of the Lyric Opera from 2000-21.

Davis made his Lyric Opera debut in Chicago in 1987 and led about 700 performances of 62 operas by 22 composers.

A bearded man is shown looking into the audience with arms spread and raised on a stage.
Conductor Andrew Davis, right, raises his arms as he takes a bow, accompanied by Renée Fleming, and Peter Rose, centre, during a dress rehearsal at New York’s Lincoln Center, on March 25, 2011. (Richard Drew/The Associated Press)

As his 80th birthday approached, Davis was invigorated by the challenge of molding an orchestra, especially young players.

“Harnessing all that energy and that enthusiasm and that passion, and galvanizing it into a totally, totally unified conception and not just conception but — what’s the word? — realization,” he told The Associated Press in 2023. “I berate them more than I would, but I hope always with a twinkle in my eye.”

Born in Ashridge, England, Andrew Frank Davis played organ for his parish choir and joined the choir at the Watford Grammar School for Boys.

He studied piano at London’s Royal Academy of Music in London, became an organ student at King’s College Cambridge, and played piano, harpsichord and organ with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields from 1966-70. He also spent time in Rome under the tutelage of conductor Franco Ferrara.

Davis married his third wife, soprano Gianna Rolandi, in 1989. The couple’s relationship stretched back to 1974, when she sang in performances of Strauss that he led at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

Rolandi died in 2021.

Their son, composer Edward Frazier Davis, survives him, as do a sister and two brothers. Funeral services will be private.

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