Skip to main content

Update browser for a secure TSO experience

It looks like you may be using a web browser version that we don't support. Make sure you're using the most recent version of your browser, or try using of these supported browsers, to get the full TSO experience: Chrome, Firefox, Safari, or Edge.


Sir Andrew Davis conducting during rehearsal

Beloved maestro Sir Andrew Davis had a long-standing bond with the TSO

by Brad Wheeler
May 7, 2024


Published April 24, 2024 in The Globe and Mail

The British conductor Sir Andrew Davis was a proponent of Bach, Elgar and Tippett, yet one of his best remembered moments on stage with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra involved a light composition that while a classic, was hardly classical.

On Feb. 2, 2019, he took the stage at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall to lead the orchestra in Wagner’s towering Ride of the Valkyries. A few bars in, however, the piece gracefully transitioned into Happy Birthday to You as the members of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, previously unnoticed in their street clothes, arose in the choir loft to serenade the maestro on his 75th birthday.

Sir Andrew Davis's 75th Birthday (Feb 2, 2019)
Photo by Nick Wons

Sir Andrew stepped off the podium laughing. The Groundhog Day surprise has been preserved by the TSO online, in case anyone wishes to relive the moment.

“A packed house was expecting this intense, epic movement and in the space of four bars it basically turns into a love fest,” recalled the orchestra’s concertmaster, Jonathan Crow. “Andrew did not know it was coming at all.”

He probably should have had an inkling, for no TSO baton wielder has ever been more adored. “I can’t think of a conductor who has had such a relationship with an orchestra,” Mr. Crow said.

Sir Andrew, the warm-hearted music director and chief conductor of Canada’s largest symphony from 1975 to 1988, and its lifetime conductor laureate afterward, died of leukemia on April 20 at Rush University Medical Center, in Chicago. He was 80.

“His passing came unexpectedly quickly but peacefully, a mercy,” his manager, Jonathan Brill of Opus 3 Artists, said.

He first conducted the TSO on May 7, 1974. Following the death of music director Karel Ancerl a year earlier, the orchestra held a search for his successor. The bespectacled 30-year-old, who had experience as assistant conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Glasgow and the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, was invited to conduct a program at Massey Hall that included Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass – “not a pushover,” he would later tell The WholeNote magazine.

Sir Andrew Davis in recording studio

In June, TSO managing director Walter Homburger crossed the pond with a job offer. Before assuming the music director post in the fall of 1975, Mr. Davis (he only became Sir Andrew when he was knighted in 1999) conducted a concert that included Elgar’s Symphony No. 2. Mr. Homburger, who had been sitting with a symphony board member who was not a fan of the English composer, rushed backstage to relay a message: “No more Elgar!”

There would be more Elgar – there would be more everything. Mr. Davis was a generalist who performed a broad repertoire ranging from Baroque to contemporary. He was particular admirer of Canada’s Sir Ernest MacMillan, and championed contemporary Canadian composers such as Alexina Louie, Glenn Buhr and Emilie Lebel.

Since his debut in 1974, the maestro made annual appearances with the TSO for the next 50 years, conducting nearly 1,000 concerts with the symphony in all. He made 33 recordings with the TSO, earning three Juno Awards and two Grammy nominations.

“I’m not just thinking in terms of the initial three-year contract,” he told The Globe and Mail in 1974. “I want to work with an orchestra and build over a long period.”

A superstar sub, Sir Andrew stepped into leadership roles when the TSO was between music directors from 2002-04 and 2018-20. His final concerts with the symphony were in November, 2023, when he conducted Fauré's Requiem and the Canadian premiere of Mother and Child, composed by his son, Edward Frazier Davis.

“He always loved the friendliness and hospitality not just of those he worked with in Canada but also of the everyday people he met there,” his son said.

If Sir Andrew will no longer walk the streets of Toronto, the city’s people can walk his: Sir Andrew Davis Lane runs near the home in the Cabbagetown neighbourhood where he lived during most of his initial TSO tenure.

In the early 2000s, Sir Andrew and his wife, the American soprano Gianna Rolandi Davis, vacationed at their cottage on Lake Joseph in Ontario’s Muskoka region. He had met her while conducting her performances of Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos at the Metropolitan Opera. Married in 1989, they remained together until her death in 2021.

The gifted conductor led the TSO far and wide. A program consisting of Beethoven, Elgar and the U.S. premiere of Fantasmes by Canada’s André Prévost at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1977 brought attention to the conductor. “He has a clear beat, plenty of charisma, surging rhythm and a good ear,” noted Harold Schonberg of The New York Times. “Davis conveys a feeling of excitement and personal involvement with the music.”

Under his leadership in 1978, the TSO made history as the first Canadian orchestra to perform in China since Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. In 1987, the symphony played Inuvik, NWT, as part of its Canadian Odyssey tour of the Far North.

Sir Andrew Davis and Louis Lortie in rehearsal, 1978
Sir Andrew Davis and Forrester in China, 1978

He was a trained organist/harpsichordist, a talented pianist and a pure musician to the core. “The scale and level of his talent was just remarkable,” said Peter Simon, president and CEO of the Toronto-based Royal Conservatory of Music. “He could absorb complex and wide-ranging musical scores almost instantaneously.”

TSO principal clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas, who described the maestro as someone who “oozed musicality,” was hired straight out Yale University in 1982, even though the symphony’s auditioning committee felt he lacked the necessary experience. “Mr. Davis told them, ‘He’s the one I want,’” the clarinet player recalled. “I feel like I owe him my musical life.”

A genial man with an impish sense of humour, Mr. Davis had a reputation as a leader who enjoyed friendships with musicians. “He liked us, as people, individually,” Mr. Valdepeñas said.

Mr. Davis’s career interests extended to choral works and opera. In 1978, the one-time singer at the Watford Grammar School for Boys required a treble-voice choir to perform Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker with the TSO. In response, conductor Jean Ashworth Bartle founded the Toronto Children’s Chorus that year. The TCC would premiere Mr. Davis’s own compositions, Chansons Innocentes (1984) and Alice (2003).

In 1988, Mr. Davis left his post with the TSO to become music director with the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, in East Sussex, England. He stayed 12 years. Other notable appointments included chief conductor with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

Sir Andrew Davis's final concert as Music Director of the TSO. He is being presented with a Canadian-made canoe by TSO Board Presidents. April 1988

He was music director and principal conductor of the Lyric Opera of Chicago from 2000 to 2021. There he led nearly 700 performances of 62 operas by 22 different composers.

His final public performance was of his own orchestration of Handel’s Messiah with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, on Dec. 23, 2023. According to Loie Fallis, TSO vice-president, artistic planning, Sir Andrew was fond of the Toronto-Chicago shuttle operating out of the downtown Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport.

Sir Andrew Davis conducts the Messiah in 2015
Photo by Malcolm Cook

“One of his favourite things was to take the ferry over from the terminal, even after a tunnel to the mainland was built,” she said. “He was a natural musician and he was naturally curious, and I believe that spread to his love of the outdoors and geography and people. That’s my lasting image of him, outside on that ferry.”

Andrew Frank Davis was born Feb. 2, 1944, in a Nissen hut in Ashridge, Hertfordshire, England. His parents were homemaker Florence Davis (née Badminton) and Robert Davis, a typesetter. Though not musically inclined themselves, they were supportive of their children’s musical interests.

As a boy, Andrew would play piano duets with his sister, Jill. She handled the more simple “oompah” bits in the lower register, while the future maestro would show off with the more complicated upper parts.

His first love was singing. “My mother always said I sang before I spoke,” Sir Andrew recently told the podcast A Mic on the Podium. He put his meagre earnings as a paperboy toward the purchase of a record player and his first record, a 78 RPM disc of Jussi Björling singing Flower Song from the opera Carmen and Dream Song from Manon.

After his voice broke, he began playing organ for a local parish choir and took Saturday trips to London to study piano at Royal Academy of Music. He won the position of organ scholar at King’s College, Cambridge, where he was under the tutelage of David Willcocks from 1963 to 1967.

Sir Andrew Davis conducts Symphonie Fantastique, Sep 20, 2018

In 1965, he had begun studying conducting at the Canford Summer Fair with George Hurst. “If I have any technique,” Sir Andrew said recently, “it started with him.”

Technique and a little chicanery won him the job as assistant conductor with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. After applying for the position, he had Glynn Bragg (an old friend from King’s College and a timpanist with the orchestra) check on the status of his application.

As it turned out, there were three stacks of résumés: Yes, no and maybe. “Glynn took my application from the ‘maybe’ pile and put it in the ‘yes’ pile,” Sir Andrew told podcaster Michael Seal in 2020. “I’ve always told him that my entire career was his fault.”

The maestro was chummy – a quality uncommon among conductors of large symphony orchestras. “He absolutely knew how to put everybody at ease at all times,” Mr. Crow said.

In the summer of 1982, pianist Richard Herriott performed César Franck’s Symphonic Variations with the TSO at Ontario Place Forum. Backstage, the young musician was nervous.

“Andrew looked at me and said, ‘Richard, you look a little green,’ and he proceeded to tell me arguably the filthiest limericks I’ve ever heard in my life,” Mr. Herriott said. Later, onstage, the conductor waited as the tense pianist bowed and sat down on the piano bench before whispering the last line of the limerick into his ear.

“I’m about to play this incredible piece of French music, sitting there in a fit of laughter,” Mr. Herriott recalled. “He just dispelled every ounce of nerves.”

Mr. Davis reached out to young audiences. He conducted and played piano in The Carnival of the Animals dressed as a lion, and sang Major-General’s Song from the comic opera The Pirates of Penzance in full regalia (including a pith helmet, stuffed with lyrics in case he needed to peek).

Sir Andrew Davis conducting a performance of Carnival of the Animals, 1997

In 1992, Mr. Davis was created a Commander of the British Empire, and in 1999 he was designated a Knight Bachelor in the New Year Honours List. He was a familiar face at the BBC Proms concerts in London, where he was noted for his amusing speeches.

He leaves his son, Edward Frazier Davis; sister, Jill Atkins; and brothers, Martin Davis and Tim Davis.

Outside of music, he was a lover of literature. “He had an uncanny ability to recite poetry perfectly, even if it was only something he had read or studied decades earlier,” his son said. During the COVID-19 lockdown, he translated Virgil’s Aeneid from Latin into English verse.

Speaking to The Globe once about his annual reunions with the TSO, Sir Andrew remarked, “I’m the only music director I know who returns to an old orchestra so often. I’ve been back every year, so I must like it.”

The sentiment was mutual.

Excerpted from The Globe and Mail, copyright 2024.

Sir Andrew Davis at the TSO and TSYO Side-by-Side performance of Brahms & Dvorák. Feb 9, 2019

Join Kathleen Kajioka for a special edition of Sunday Night at the TSO as we remember Sir Andrew Davis.

Violinist James Ehnes, pianist Louis Lortie and longtime members of the TSO reflect on the man and his magnificent music-making and on a friendship with the TSO that lasted half a century.

Listen to the Episode