Sir Andrew Davis marks his 25th anniversary at Lyric Opera with Wagner’s epic “Meistersinger”

February 05, 2013
By Wynne Delacoma

Sir Andrew Davis will conduct Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg,” which opens Friday night at Lyric Opera.

SAD—Talk about misleading monograms.

Technically, the initials Lyric Opera of Chicago staffers use in e-mails and internal memos to identify Sir Andrew Davis, the company’s music director, are correct. But the word they spell out hardly describes the man himself.

Sir Andrew, Lyric’s music director since 2000 who celebrated his 69th birthday last Saturday, is a fundamentally uptempo soul, a man with a hearty laugh, a ready smile and a sly British wit. In a field filled with self-important conductors whose talent with a baton far outstrips their people skills, Sir Andrew is that rare creature: a gifted, internationally respected maestro who is also a mensch.

This season Lyric celebrates the 25th anniversary of Sir Andrew’s company debut. In 1987, he led performances of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro at the Civic Opera House with something of a Dream Team cast—Samuel Ramey as Figaro, Maria Ewing as Susanna, Frederica von Stade as Cherubino, Ruggero Raimondi as Count Almaviva and Felicity Lott as the Countess.

Over the next decade he returned to Lyric for three more engagements—Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito in 1989, Figaro again in 1991 and Richard Strauss’ Capriccio in 1994. By 1997, when William Mason, Lyric’s newly appointed general director, offered him the music director post, Sir Andrew knew Chicago well.

Born and trained in England, he was music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra from 1975 to1988. Chicago felt comfortable to him. Like the many movie directors who use Toronto as a cheaper alternative to filming in Chicago, Sir Andrew sees the similarities between the two cities.

“I always say that Toronto is sort of like Chicago’s younger sister,” he said. “It’s on a lake, it’s a very busy commercial and artistic center. There’s a lot going on theater-wise, a thriving symphony and now the Canadian Opera Company has sort of grown up. It has a wonderful new house.”

In a recent interview in his 4th floor office above the Civic Opera House at Madison and Wacker, Sir Andrew talked about his years at Lyric so far and offered a glimpse of the future. (Last year Lyric extended his contract through 2020-21.) Casually dressed in a dark crew-necked wool sweater and slacks, sinking into a cushiony couch in his none-too-lavish digs, he was taking a break from rehearsals for Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which opens Friday night. He was also thinking about Australia’s Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, whose post as chief conductor he assumed in early January.

“Time flies when you’re having fun and other platitudes,” Sir Andrew said with a laugh. “Sometimes you look back, and it seems but yesterday. And other times, when you think of all the things we’ve been through, it seems a long time. I’ve seen my way through a lot of repertoire and some wonderful productions.

“Though, at this time of year,” he said with a smile, looking out his window at the grey January sky, “You do wonder, ‘Why the hell am I living here?’”

The varied repertoire that Sir Andrew conducted in his first season as Lyric’s music director—Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, Janacek’s Jenufa and Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman—offered a hint of what Chicago audiences would hear from him over the next dozen years. He arrived at Lyric during a time of major transition. After 35 years with Lyric in various capacities, Mason had become general director in 1997 following the death of his predecessor, Ardis Krainik. Music director Bruno Bartoletti, who arrived at Lyric in 1956, two years after its founding, was ready to retire.

Once known as La Scala West, the company was looking for a music director whose strengths reached beyond the Italian repertoire. Mason and other top Lyric administrators were impressed with Sir Andrew’s Mozart and Richard Strauss performances. The fact that he had never conducted a Wagner opera didn’t concern them, even though they wanted to revive the company’s first-ever production of Wagner’s four-opera epic, The Ring of the Nibelungen from the mid-1990s. Sir Andrew conducted the revival that culminated in week-long Ring cycles in Spring 2005.

“When Andrew came to do Figaro here in 1987, I liked him immediately and I thought he conducted it beautifully,” said Mason who retired as general manager in 2011. (His successor is Anthony Freud who is, like Sir Andrew, a British native.)

According to Mason, Lyric wanted Sir Andrew for more engagements in the 1990s. But by then he was music director of England’s Glyndebourne Festival and chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. His dance card was full. [He held both posts from the late 1980s until joining Lyric and is currently conductor laureate of the Toronto and BBC symphonies.] With Bartoletti planning to retire, Sir Andrew struck Lyric’s top administrators as ideal for the job.

“We wanted someone with whom we could work well, who would be a good colleague,” said Mason, “and Andrew certainly filled the bill.” Lyric sees itself as a relaxed, welcoming place, a major international opera house with high standards but little tolerance for tantrum-throwing. Davis’ combination of fearsome musical talent and easy-going manner matched the company’s profile perfectly.

Mason’s tastes tended to be conservative, but since 2000 Sir Andrew has conducted a huge selection of repertoire. His more than 30 Lyric productions range from Verdi and Puccini, Wagner and Strauss, Berlioz and Massenet to Benjamin Britten, Sir Michael Tippett and Gilbert and Sullivan. He has left American opera—Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, Mark Blitzstein’s Regina, John Harbison’s Great Gatsby—to other conductors. But he has strongly supported Lyric’s forays into musical theater—Sweeney Todd, Show Boat and Oklahoma!—and values the company’s past collaboration with American composer William Bolcom,

Lyric commissioned three works from Bolcom: McTeague, which had its world premiere in 1992; A View from the Bridge, based on the Arthur Miller play, in 1999, and A Wedding, inspired by Robert Altman’s movie of the same name, in 2004.

“We can take great pride in what we commissioned from Bill Bolcom,’’ said Sir Andrew, “and we’ve talked about reviving A View from the Bridge. Bill has a terrific sense of the theater. You will undoubtedly be seeing, in the next few seasons, works by American composers. That’s a definite plan we have.”

Sir Andrew will conduct the world premiere of Lyric’s latest commission: an opera based on Ann Patchett’s novel, Bel Canto, with music by Peruvian composer Jimmy Lopez and libretto by Nilo Cruz, a Cuban-American playwright. The piece is scheduled for Lyric’s 2015-16 season.

Any opera company’s music director helps shape its repertoire choices, but one of Sir Andrew’s greatest achievements at Lyric has been his work with the company’s orchestra. It was a solid ensemble when he arrived, but under his baton it has become exceptionally responsive and versatile. The orchestra’s tone is always full of vivid, idiomatic color, whether the score is by Handel or Janacek.

Charlene Zimmerman, who became Lyric’s principal clarinet in 1991, has played with the orchestra for more than 30 years.

“[Sir Andrew] was a big hit when he first came as a guest,” she recalled. “He’s so easy to work with; his rehearsals are very pleasant and the end result is really nice for everybody. When it came time to hire him as music director, it was sort of a natural progression of what had already begun. It was a perfect match.”

Sir Andrew often uses his British-flavored humor to drive his comments home during rehearsals, said Zimmerman. “I might as well save my breath to cool my porridge,’’ he will often grumble when the orchestra fails to respond to a correction.

“Even in the worst possible situations, he uses humor to make his point,” she said. “That’s something that orchestras like because nobody feels put down. He knows that in the end the orchestra will get it and that the performances will be fine. What Andrew really understands is that you get more from an orchestra by being kind and funny rather than tyrannical or angry.”

But Lyric’s music director has a firm grip on his operatic stuff. “I feel like the conductor should be the one person in the house who knows the [musical] score the best, better than anyone else,” said Zimmerman. “I sense that he really does.”

Photo: Dario Acosta

Marie Tachouet, a young musician who joined Lyric as principal flute this season, especially values Sir Andrew’s attention to detail. “He’s very good at evaluating what needs work,” she said, “and how to best go about it.

“It’s really interesting to watch him work. For example, the strings will be playing some huge, sweeping melody and then the third horn or the second flute will have some essentially random solo that will last for maybe two beats. He’ll hear that and respond to that person individually. He’ll smile or react to what they’re doing. He’s very gracious when he conducts. A lot of conductors would only be focused on the bigger things.”

Sir Andrew is married to Gianna Rolandi, an American soprano who appeared with New York City Opera and other major companies including the Metropolitan Opera and Lyric from the mid-1970s through the mid-1990s. She recently retired as director of Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center, an apprentice program for young artists. Whether thanks to her influence or not, he is a conductor beloved by singers.

American soprano Renée Fleming, who became Lyric’s creative consultant in 2010, has worked with Sir Andrew both on and off stage. They first met at Glyndebourne, and he conducted her in Massenet’s Thaïs at Lyric in 2002-03.

“He’s phenomenal,” Fleming said. “He’s one of the few people in the world who is so versatile in terms of breadth of repertoire and grasp of style. And then adding to that is his simpatico. He is someone who can work extremely well with singers and deal sympathetically with our issues and problems. He knows, from experience and talent, how to help us. That’s a very special quality.

“It has a lot to do with pacing,” she said, “with understanding where we need to move and where we need to take time, knowing that we’ll need to breathe. It’s knowing that every performance will be different and having sensitivity to that.”

Quinn Kelsey, a Ryan Center alumnus, recalls working with Sir Andrew at the center from 2003 to 2006. The Hawaii-born baritone is building a strong career in Europe and the U.S. and appeared in Lyric’s Simon Boccanegra conducted by Sir Andrew this past fall.

“As with any seasoned conductor, he enhances the environment immediately,” said Kelsey. “You feel that the guy with the baton knows exactly where he wants to go, what he wants to do. He also understands the measure of psychology behind the conductor’s job, in helping everyone under his baton to feel comfortable, even if it’s a really difficult piece.”

Throughout his career, Sir Andrew has balanced opera and orchestral posts, and he has been busy as a visiting conductor. He is “rather proud” that both the Toronto and BBC symphonies named him conductor laureate after he resigned his music directorships.

But after 13 years he was “itching” to get back to a regular diet of meaty symphony orchestra repertoire. He will be doing a complete Mahler symphony cycle over several seasons in Melbourne.

Sir Andrew is one reason why Freud accepted the offer to succeed Mason as Lyric’s fourth general director in 2011.

“What makes him incredibly special,” said Freud, “is that he is both a wonderful conductor, a wonderful music director in terms of being committed to company-building and he’s a wonderful human being. Those of us who have been in this business for a while realize that those three qualities rarely come together.

“One of the things that thrilled me most in my first year here at Lyric was my success [in extending Sir Andrew’s contract]. I was very keen very soon after I started to make sure that Andrew’s commitment was as long as it could possibly be. Nothing pleased me more than signing a new contract that takes him to 2020-21. And I don’t think we should assume that it will be his last contract.”

Lyric’s 2020-21 season is a long way off, and Sir Andrew’s main concern at the moment is surviving the five-hour endurance contest know as Wagner’s Meistersinger. His grueling start to the season, Strauss’ fiery Elektra—90 minutes of non-stop mayhem and murder—was a mere warmup.

Meistersinger is a monster,” Sir Andrew groaned. “When I came out of the pit at the end of Elektra, I was like a wet dishrag in terms of energy and concentration. And I thought, ‘This is a half-hour shorter than Act III of Meistersinger.’

“But I’m absolutely mad about it. There’s something about Meistersinger; it’s basically cheerful. If you asked me, ‘What’s your least favorite key,’ I would probably say, ‘C Major.’ But Meistersinger makes C Major seem like the most fantastic and wonderful key that ever existed.’’

Rather like SAD himself.

Lyric Opera’s production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg opens at 5:30 p.m. Friday and runs through March 3.; 312-332-2244.

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