Portrait

All the world’s a stage for Melbourne Symphony Orchestra maestro Andrew Davis. By Kate Holden.

Conducting becoming for MSO’s Sir Andrew Davis

On the concert program cover he seems kind of gargantuan: splendid of shoulder, bristling of beard, a man who might dine on wild boar. He’s English, after all. He pronounces it “EL-gar”; he says “orf”. El-gar, magnificent: you can see the sunstruck meadows, hear the church bells. Orotund voice, like someone from an era with much tweed. Today he’s wearing a jacket over a woollen jumper. Under it is a skivvy. Even in warm weather, a Britisher can’t be too wary of a chill. 

The real Sir Andrew Davis is narrower than you expect, not bearish, valiantly fighting jet lag and a little watery. Sits, accepts the offer of a cup of tea, folds his knuckles together over a thick bound copy of the upcoming concert’s score. His hands rarely stop moving: they flutter up, they smooth back against his ears, they pat his hair, rub his tired eyes: conductor’s hands. The splayed spatulate pinky fingers of his craft. He’s 71. Blue eyes and thick schoolboy’s hair, short around the base and greyly floppy at the front. “The Davis thatch,” he chortles, gloating that his brothers are younger and much more bald. Abruptly sobers, speaks of his career being only as good as his last performance. Buries the main nouns of his speech in a gruff cough. That’s his cadence: up, up, up; then a deprecating hush. The diminuendo is wonderful. 

How he loves his music. Soars into a mezzoforte of enthusiasm. “Before we were articulating thoughts we were articulating emotion. When did we start to think?” His job is joy. To bring the orchestra together in the joy of music. For an atheist “I believe very much in the power or importance of the spiritual world. What music gives us can be beautiful, entertaining, exciting, but it also opens up a dimension that is … at its best it’s a spiritual world, you can call it the collective unconscious. It’s something that is a gift. Imagine how all the problems of the world might be solved.” 

But “it’s just a terrifying world we live in, in many ways.” He shakes his head. This man lives in the States; he knows something of dismay. “What I find the most depressing is the enmity and the malevolence and the general lack of desire there seems to be for people to get on and co-operate. Even if we’re irretrievably savage and pugnacious, I find it quite extraordinarily troubling. But there’s nothing I can do about it.” His voice trails off. “So I do what I do …” He literally creates harmonies? “Yes, yes!” he says, brightening. “Music can bring people together.” The hands flutter down, clamp swollen knuckles. 

All the world’s a stage, as they say. Melbourne is one of his cities. Born to C of E evangelists; an organ scholar in Cambridge; studied in Rome; conducted with the BBC Scottish Symphony in Glasgow; Toronto for 13 years, 12 at Glyndebourne; meanwhile 11 at the BBC Symphony Orchestra; 15 at Chicago so far. He reels off more: Norway once a year, guest spots everywhere. “Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York … I love it. These are my old friends. These threads go all the way through my life.” He’s pelting into Melbourne this month to seize the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra by their scruff and then dash off again, his duties as chief conductor discharged. His wife wants him to slow down. He stays up late, buzzed, after a performance; “but”, he warns happily, “you should see me the next morning”. 

He can’t imagine quitting, but “when I retire”, this Knight Bachelor says in joke poncy voice, “I’m going to sit at home and read Homer in Greek.” He did Greek at school. He can quote in German, speaks Italian fluently, and French “better than I have a right to”. “I can still recite the opening two lines from Euripides’ Bacchae”; and he does, guttural unhesitating recitation. He’s chuckling, shyly proud. “And I even know what it means. Oh, that we had not felled the pine trees …” 

He must get to rehearsal. Cheerfully he plans his dreadfulness. “I’ll be saying, NOT LIKE THAT! WHAT ARE YOU DOING YOU IDIOT! YOU FOOL! NINCOMPOOPS!” Walks off merrily in his jumper. The orchestra adores him, the publicist whispers in his wake. 

Now in rehearsal he hops onto the podium and faces the orchestra. His hands leap up, the arms rise. A crisp red shirt on now; where did this come from? Eyes hooded and distant as he listens, sibylline with concentration; or like someone long-sighted threading a needle. “Again; and kind of severe, please.” The music manifests, magically. It stops. An accusing finger at the trumpet section: “Please, don’t do it again.” It starts. He is austere; then crinkles his eyes at someone doing particularly well up the back. His hands scoop forward and part like a swimmer’s; suspend all the sound on the flick of his wrist. Here it is: this man’s expertise. “I think my greatest responsibility,” he said earlier, “is to bring a sort of vision to the orchestra, so it brings us all together. Which comes from the music. So when you work on a particular piece it becomes the greatest thing for you. And then you really get that sense from the whole orchestra, and then it goes to the audience, and onwards … That is what my job is.” 

And the next evening he will stand with his back to the audience and command glory for us. Great gusts of music will roar from the stage; it’s incredible that he is not blown backwards. Every musician’s finger is alert to his instruction. Furiously he whips his arms around; hops with passion; with tenderness he beckons pianissimo. There is almost something brave about him, standing there, facing those massed thrumming, hooting, piping instruments: magus before the invisible forces. There will be sound where there was nothing. At the end he will return eight times to applause, the orchestra stamping their feet, his hands outstretched to congratulate them all. And joyful, his harmonies made, the conductor leaves the stage.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 14, 2015 as "Conduct becoming". Subscribe here.

Kate Holden
is the author of the memoirs In My Skin and The Romantic: Italian Nights and Days.