It’s back to Bytown for Sir Andrew Davis and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra

Sir Andrew Davis led the TSO in Ottawa Monday evening. Photo: Jag Gundu

It’s been awhile since Sir Andrew Davis has been in Ottawa.

These days he is headquartered in Chicago where he is the music director and principal conductor of the Lyric Opera. He’s also the chief conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and conductor laureate of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

And for the time being he is the interim music director of the TSO which is awaiting the arrival of its next music director Gustavo Gimeno, who will take over formally the season after next, replacing Peter Oundjian.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder and Davis says he is fond of Ottawa. When he led the TSO in his first go around he was often here escorting some 100 musicians.

“I don’t know how many times we came up then; we certainly did not do it every year in those days (as they do today),” he said.

There was one occasion when there was a problem “when we came up. Flights were cancelled and we ended up coming on several different flights and had no chance to rehearse in (Southam) Hall.

“Everyone’s nerves were very jangled. We played Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Jacob Siskind (the former music critic at the Ottawa Citizen) who was notorious, didn’t enjoy the performance very much.”

Davis still remembers part of the review.

“He said that the Danse des adolescents sounded like a bunch of — I have never forgotten this phrase, I loved it — of a group of senescent nuns flagellating themselves with wet newspaper.

“Our principal flute at the time had a boyfriend who was a cartoonist and I commissioned him to make a cartoon of nuns flagellating themselves with wet newspaper,” Davis said with his big laugh.

It’s not often that a Canadian journalist gets a chance to talk to a Sir. Davis, however, is typically understated.

“I remember when Neville Marriner was knighted. I had known him for years. When I was at Kings College, Cambridge, his son, who subsequently became principal clarinetist in the London Symphony, was one of boy choristers so I had known him for years.

“When he got his knighthood, I saw him a couple of months afterwards and I said ‘What’s it like, Neville? What difference does it make?

“He said, ‘It’s very good for getting a good table in a restaurant’,” Davis said with another big laugh.

Davis is, in fact, a Knight Bachelor. “I don’t know quite what that means.”

Still, he soldiers on.

In bridging the TSO between Oundjian and Gimeno, Davis is taking one for the team. He did something similar when Jukka-Pekka Saraste moved on in 2001.

He has met Gimeno.

“He is quite adventurous, but practical too. He knows what he is getting into.” Gimeno is leaving a well-funded orchestra in Luxemburg to come to a North American ensemble.

While Toronto is waiting for Gimeno, Davis pitches in. The reason: “I love the orchestra and the fact is I have been connected with it since the 1973-74 season. I was there for the 1974-75 season as well and started as music director in 1975. There hasn’t been a season since when I haven’t conducted the TSO.

“I am there five weeks this season and six weeks next. It’s like going back to family. We always have such a great time and they play so well. And I have so many friends in the orchestra” despite the turnover that has happened since he left the music director’s post in 1988.

“There are still a good number of people still there and because I go back every year I get to know the new people as well.”

Davis maintains long connections with his orchestras.

He’s been at the Lyric Opera for 19 years, for example.

“I haven’t actually held a lot of positions but the ones I have had, I have had for a long time.

Toronto was his first music directorship. He was there for 13 years. he was with the BBC Symphony for 11 years and 12 years at the Glyndebourne opera house at the same time.

He’s done seven years with the Melbourne (Australia) Symphony. This is his last year there after seven years “which for me is short. I love going there but as I get more ancient, going out to Australia three times a year is increasingly wearing.”

Even after he leaves he stays connected.

It doesn’t always happen. “Very often a conductor will leave and that’s it, you never see them again. But all the orchestras I have been associated with, I return to every year with great joy.”

The TSO program in Ottawa features Mahler’s Seventh Symphony and Cesar Franck’s Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra with Louis Lortie as the soloist.

“I first encountered him when we went to China in 1978. He and Maureen Forrester were our two soloists. He was 18 at the time.

“Because we are playing Mahler’s Seventh, which is quite big, I asked him if he would play Franck’s Symphonic Variations, something I have loved since I was a teenager.” 

The TSO will also play a short piece by the Hong Kong born Canadian composer Chan Ka Nin called My New Beautiful, Wonderful, Terrific, Amazing, Fantastic, Magnificent Homeland. The two-minute piece is part of an amazing sesquicentennial project by the TSO called Canadian Mosaic, which featured short pieces by 40 Canadian composers written for 2017.

“The one we are playing is just wonderful. It is two minutes with just the strings and it’s full of tremendous energy and wit. The commissions varied in quality but this is one of the best. These ones are being repeated so that they don’t just disappear after one hearing,” Davis said.

This kind of project was not possible when Davis first landed in Canada in 1967, he said. Today, he said, there are good Canadian composers everywhere.

“For example, we will be premiering a piece by Jordan Pal soon. It’s not that there haven’t been good Canadian composers before, but the breadth of the talent and composing styles is now enormous. I think Canadian composers can hold their own internationally to a much greater extent than they could some 45 years ago.”

After TSO concerts in Ottawa and Montreal he’s ending his time this season save for an audition and some fundraising work.

In 1967, he was just ending his time as an organ scholar at Kings College and he came to Canada to take part in a competition. He also toured around a bit, starting in London, Ontario, then to Toronto, Ottawa and finishing in Montreal and Expo ’67.

“I remember going to a concert in Hart House at the University of Toronto featuring a wind quintet. All the players were principals of the TSO. Little did I think I would end up eight years later as music director.”

Davis isn’t alone as an organist on the podium.

“Some of my colleagues have started on the organ. Leopold Stokowski started as an organist, Sir Malcolm Sargent too, so it’s not unprecedented.”

But did it prepare him to be a music director?

“I would say not at all.” That’s not quite right actually.

“One of the things about performing on the organ is you have to make choices about  what stops to use and what colours to use and how to balance the different sections of the organ from the keyboards to the foot pedals.

“The question of colour is certainly something that has some relevance in conducting an orchestra. So does finding the balance between sections. That is one of the things that I have thought is very important.

Another is, he said with a wink, making sure the brass section doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the orchestra.

“One of the first things you learn in conducting school, so to speak, is never look at the brass. If you look at them, they’ll just play louder.”

He doesn’t play the organ much these days although he did record a CD of organ music after Roy Thomson Hall opened. Davis had been involved in setting the specs for the organ in the hall.

“I was listening to it the other day and I thought it was impressive, but I couldn’t come near it today. Senility overcomes one eventually.”

Certainly not yet Sir Andrew.

Toronto Symphony Orchestra
Where: Southam Hall
When: May 22 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.