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Conductor Andrew Davis, who headed Toronto Symphony Orchestra for 13 years, dies

Andrew Davis, an acclaimed British conductor who served as music director at orchestras on three continents, including 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 between 1 1/2 and 2 years, but it became acute shortly after his 80th birthday on Feb. 2. He had conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra last December in the U.S. premiere of his own orchestration of Handel’s “Messiah.”

Throughout his life, he conducted an estimated 1,000 TSO concerts at venues across Toronto. He led a historic 1978 tour to China with Canadian opera singer Maureen Forrester, and festival tours that included Edinburgh and the Proms.

Born in Ashridge, in the Hertfordshire county of 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.

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He made his conducting debut with the BBC Symphony in 1970, became an assistant conductor with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Philharmonia Orchestra, then in 1971 made his North American debut with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

But an opening in Toronto offered Davis the chance of a lifetime. The TSO was looking to fill the position of Karel Ančerl, the orchestra’s globally renowned music director who had died in 1973.

At only 30 years old, Davis was an ideal candidate. So much so, the TSO’s then-manager Walter Homburger flew to London to offer him the job, which he accepted.

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“It just seemed right,” Davis told the Toronto Star in 2015.

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“I’d had many jobs, but I was ready to have an orchestra of my own.”

Davis held the role of TSO music director from 1975 to 1988, when he was named conductor laureate. He continued to make annual appearances with the TSO each year until his death.

He was involved with 33 recordings with the city’s orchestra — three of them winning classical Juno Awards — and after advocating for its construction, he helped open Roy Thomson Hall as the home of the TSO in 1982.

The new venue was met with some disappointment, Davis acknowledged later.

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“It was too big and, for works by composers such as Brahms and Bruckner, there just wasn’t enough resonance,” he told the Star.

A 2002 renovation, which re-engineered the size and shape of the hall to the tune of $20 million, turned the hall around, as far as Davis was concerned.

“It’s not just a good hall now. It’s a very good hall,” he said.

In 2016, the City of Toronto honoured Davis by naming a small street near the home where he once lived as Sir Andrew Davis Lane.

“One of the finest conductors of his generation,” Carnegie Hall executive and artistic director Clive Gillinson said. “I worked with him on an ongoing basis at the London Symphony Orchestra, and the players and I were always totally engaged by his superb musicianship.”

Davis made his opera-conducting debut in Strauss’ “Capriccio” at the Glyndebourne in 1973 and the following year met his future wife, soprano Gianna Rolandi, when she sang Zerbinetta in performances of Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos” that he led at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. They got married in 1989 and had a son, composer Edward Frazier Davis.

He became a Commander of the British Empire in 1992 and a Knight Bachelor in 1999. The family moved to Chicago when he was hired by the Lyric Opera.

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Davis was music director of Britain’s Glyndebourne Festival from 1988-2000; chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 1989-2000 and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra from 2013-19; then music director of the Lyric Opera from 2000-21.

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

Davis conducted a dozen Last Night of the Proms concerts, an annual celebration of Britain at London’s Royal Albert Hall. He twice gave the customary speech in the patter of the Major General’s song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance.”

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 said during an interview with the AP last July after rehearsing the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America in workshops.

“I berate them more than I would, but I hope always with a twinkle in my eye.”

His wife died in 2021. In addition to his son, he is survived by a sister, Jill Atkins, and brothers Martin Davis and Tim Davis. Funeral services will be private.

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— with files from Ronald Blum of The Associated Press and David Friend of The Canadian Press

&© 2024 The Canadian Press

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