Sir Andrew Davis

Born: February 2, 1944;

Died: April 20, 2024

Sir Andrew Davis, who has died of leukaemia aged 80, was a genial conductor of opera and symphonic music throughout the world and one of the most celebrated conductors of his generation. He inspired orchestras with a subtle diplomacy cajoling them to even greater musical heights.

Sir Andrew could sight read a complex score and play it on the piano immediately. His musical command in the pit was uncanny and he could re-adjust the music during an opera if something went array on stage. Similarly, the audience, especially the Prommers, respected his sheer musicianship and responded to his quirky sense of humour.

As was evidenced at the Last Night of the Proms in 1992. Sir Andrew delivered his traditional speech in the manner of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Modern Major General’s patter song: “This is the very model of a modern music festival/ With entertainment sonic, promenadable and aestival”.

Kellen Gray, an associate artist of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO), remembers Sir Andrew with much affection. “I had the pleasure of serving as assistant-conductor for Sir Andrew on a few occasions and each programme was, for me, an incredible learning experience. He would eagerly volunteer to take me through each score. We’d discuss the proper sound for Elgar and for Vaughn-Williams, and all the nuances you'd hope to glean from someone of his experience. He was a kind man, humble and had a glowing personality.”

Andrew Frank Davis was born in Hertfordshire, the son of Robert, a compositor, and his wife Florence. He attended Watford Grammar School where he was an enthusiastic pianist. In 1959 he studied the organ with Peter Hurford at St Alban’s Cathedral and subsequently won an organ scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge, then served as organist with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields.

In 1970 he was appointed assistant conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra; for someone so young it was a prestigious appointment: his predecessors had included Colin Davis and Alexander Gibson, and a successor was Simon Rattle.

In fact, Sir Andrew returned often to Scotland and appeared regularly at the Edinburgh Festival for over 50 years. Last year to celebrate his 80th birthday year he conducted Richard Strauss’s Capriccio – the first opera he had conducted in Edinburgh.

His debut was in 1974 and many prestigious events were to follow. In 1983 Davis conducted a memorable performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Perhaps the most challenging was the second and fourth operas of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Of the mammoth Götterdämmerung in 2019 a critic wrote “Davis and the RSNO were full of reminders of the Russian attack on Ukraine.”

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In Glasgow he was a popular figure with the BBC SSO and the audiences. He conducted much new music and brought a real individuality to the classics, conducting up to 50 concerts a year, including several Proms. “I remember the orchestra’s mangers saying to me, ‘I’ll dig you out of the snow drift if necessary,” he said.

He left the BBC SSO in 1970 and was a last-minute substitute for a concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra for Janacek’s challenging Glagolitic Mass. In 1973 he made his Glyndebourne debut conducting Capriccio and was appointed music director in Sussex in 2009 where he gained much renown for his complete Janacek cycle and a magnificent production of Eugene Onegin.

But the Nineties were busy as Sir Andrew was also in charge of the BBC SO – which meant two or three concerts a week at the Albert Hall. He responded to the non-stop activity with typical enthusiasm – sometimes stepping in at the last minute to cover for an ill colleague.

He had a distinguished career in the recording studio – often with the BBC SO – but he also recorded the Elgar Violin Concerto with Tamsin Little and music by Delius with the RSNO.

He conducted 130 Proms and made 12 Last Night Speeches (he admitted that “the speech is approached with anticipation and dread”). Amongst all those Proms of regular classics he championed British music from Elgar and Vaughan Williams through Holst and Bliss to Tippett and Birtwhistle. But no Prom for Sir Andrew was straightforward. On a big choral evening, he and the Albert Hall came alive. Significantly, his last concert with the RSNO was Tippett’s Child of Our Time in 2023.

Away from music he relaxed in the countryside and listed his hobbies as “collecting porcelain, music and dreaming”. He was made a KBE in 1999.

Davis, a man of much courteous charm and wit whose contribution to music in Scotland was considerable, was married three times. His third wife was the American soprano Gianna Rolandi. She predeceased him and he is survived by their son Edward Frazier Davis.