As eras go, the ‘Sir Andrew Davis era’ looks to be counted among the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s more golden. With 2019 the last of his six years as Chief Conductor, the 74-year-old British maestro’s services as Conductor Laureate have already been secured going forward. Chatting over the phone in the midst of a well-earned break in the wilds of rural Sussex, Davis cites his nearly-completed Mahler cycle as probably his fondest achievement during his MSO tenure, but there have been other pleasures, such as the opportunity to introduce Victorian audiences to the more rarefied pleasures of Berlioz and Charles Ives.

Sir Andrew Davis. Photo © Hugh Peachey

On paper, 2019 has its share of celebrity soloists (headed by Chinese ‘superstar’ pianist Lang Lang) and solid box office blockbusters – there are live scores of a Harry Potter plus The Return of the Jedi – but along with a few rarities for the cognoscenti, the season also has its fair share of intriguing programming. “It’s not the most wildly adventurous season,” admits Davis. “I mean, there are some very interesting things, but I would say frankly that we looked to put together a season that had a tremendous amount of variety but also included a good deal of the standard repertoire. But there are some special projects that I think stand out.”

He’s also especially happy that the MSO Chorus will be doing a lot next year, including the Polovtsian Dances in the season opener, a repeat of a program that went down a storm on their recent China tour, one that also features Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique and the most famous of Bruch’s violin concertos with Chinese violinist Lu Siqing.

“They [the Chorus] are doing the Verdi Requiem and my Stravinsky project, and they’ve got a Mozart Requiem,” Davis enthuses. “I must say, I’m very happy with the way they are growing and developing with Warren Trevelyan-Jones. We just did L’Enfance Du Christ, which is very difficult, but they did it very, very well. This is a good chapter that’s now unfolding, which I’m really delighted about because we’ve had some difficult times since we lost our long-time conductor and went through some experiments that were more or less successful.”

Lang Lang. Photo © Robert Ascroft/Sony Classical

Among Davis’s ‘special projects’, Mahler’s Tenth Symphony in Deryck Cooke’s third version stands out, a work that he has only conducted once before. “It is just the most extraordinary document. Someone who had always bared his soul in his music, in a way it’s the most excruciatingly personal of them all – it was bound to have been. There were so many circumstances in [Mahler’s] life: the fact that he knew he was dying and Alma was being unfaithful. It’s hard to imagine a worse situation to be in. We’re seeing open wounds in a way, aren’t we?”

And anyone who’s curious about a Davis interpretation and what it might say about where Mahler – dying at only age 50, mind – was headed need look no further than Alban Berg’s Three Pieces. “The last of them is very Mahlerian,” he says. “Of course, in some ways the striking feature of the Tenth is that incredibly dissonant chord, which happens twice. We’re at a point where tonality is approaching dissolution. I think if anyone were a true successor to Mahler it was Berg.”

The edge of tonality also features in another intriguing Davis evening that couples Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring with a far rarer work. “I wanted to do it in context together with Perséphone partly because they’re both about spring and also because Perséphone is a piece that I think is quite unjustly neglected,” Davis explains. “It was written for the ballerina Ida Rubinstein who was a dancer and an actress and so you need somebody very convincing to speak the role, but it also needs a really strong tenor, and then the chorus and children’s chorus so it’s a complex piece. I really think that these days, apart from the big ballets, Stravinsky is quite neglected – God knows when we’ll hear any of the late pieces – but I think Perséphone is one of his most beautiful works.”

Bertand de Billy. Phot0 © Marco Borggreve

Other 20th-century masterpieces will see French maestro Ludovic Morlot conduct a beautifully crafted program of Liadov’s Enchanted Lake, Sibelius’s Oceanides, the Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Marc-André Dalbavie’s La Source d’un Regard and Debussy’s La Mer. Equally engaging should be British conductor, composer and pianist Ryan Wigglesworth’s bill of Elgar’s Enigma Variations joined by Paul Lewis playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 10 for two pianos and Wigglesworth’s own Mozart Variations – an MSO commission.

Then there’s Bertrand de Billy making his MSO debut with Johannes Moser in Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll and Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra; Russian maestro Stanislav Kochanovsky returns with Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet; and Czech maestro Jakub Hrůša conducts the marvellous Vadim Gluzman in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto as well as Dvořák’s rarely heard The Wood Dove and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

Key soloists include Viktoria Mullova playing Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, Piers Lane playing Beethoven’s First Concerto under Davis, Nikolaj Znaider with Jian Wang in Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No 1 and, of course, the aforementioned Lang Lang who will be joined by Ukrainian rising star Kirill Karabits for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 24 alongside Rachmaninov’s uber-Romantic Symphony No 3.

Kirill Karabits. Photo © Denis Manokha

Another great 20th-century symphony to feature in Davis’s own programs is Sibelius One. “Originally I thought I’d do Sibelius’ Second, but then we discovered it was done relatively recently,” Sir Andrew explains. “I’ve just done the First in Manchester with the BBC Orchestra. The audience went nuts! It’s really incredibly powerful. I’ve always loved the Second, but I think the First has now supplanted it in my affections.”

That concert also features Italian pianist Alessio Bax playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 27, a player who Davis is thrilled to be bringing to Australia. “I didn’t know anything about him and then 18 months ago, Louis Langrée, who is the music director of the Cincinnati Symphony, his father died and I went there [to replace him]. Alessio had also stepped in replacing somebody else in Brahms Two, and I was blown away. I think he’s one of the most extraordinary and powerful musicians and I’m sure he will play Mozart beautifully.”

Alongside the Hamer Hall programs there will also be another year of the increasingly popular Town Hall Series helmed by Benjamin Northey. Repertoire focus on the great classics – Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat, Boléro, Tchaikovsky Symphony No 4, Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, Mozart Symphony No 40 etc – with soloists including Daniel de Borah in Brahms’ Piano Concerto No 1 and Slava Grigoryan in Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez.

Alessio Bax. Photo © Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

The Chamber series, hosted by ABC Classic FM’s Mairi Nicolson, will include performances by many of the MSO’s finest players with special guests including Greta Bradman, a world premiere by MSO Composer in Residence Paul Dean and fascinating repertoire including a coupling of Bartók’s extraordinary Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion with Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story arranged for the same forces.

Recitals over at Melbourne Recital Hall include clarinettists Michael Collins and Paul Dean, violinists Dale Barltrop and Ray Chen, Christopher Moore on viola and pianist Stefan Cassomenos. Breakout series will again take the MSO out to Monash and to Geelong, there are the Sidney Meyer free concerts, a Davis-helmed Last Night of the Proms, and then there is the annual Metropolis Festival, which next year will focus on legendary Dutch composer Louis Andriessen while celebrating new music from Australia and beyond.

Another special event that should draw the crowds will be A Symphonic Universe. Popular physicist Brian Cox brings this acclaimed event to Melbourne in an evening that combines music and science. Leading maestro Daniel Harding conducts the MSO with violinist Jack Liebeck as Professor Cox narrates the struggle against humanity’s finite existence in an infinite universe.

Winding up 2019 will be three farewell concerts, each with a Sir Andrew Davis hallmark. The first features Piers Lane playing Beethoven alongside the Fifth Symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams. “You know, I haven’t overdone the British thing since I’ve been in Melbourne,” Davis explains. “I love all of Vaughan Williams’ symphonies – I’ve recorded all of them at various points – but the Fifth is extraordinary. It was written during the war, but there’s a serenity that in a way comes from his work on A Pilgrim’s Progress.”

Composer Ed Frazier Davis

There’s also a new work by Ed Frazier Davis, a young composer who, it turns out, is close to Davis’s heart. “He’s extraordinarily musical and has perfect pitch,” he tells me, biographical details surprisingly at his fingertips. “He’s always loved choral music and has sung in choirs all through his life. He did an undergrad degree at a small liberal arts college and a master’s degree in composition in Chicago and now he’s doing his doctorate at the University of Missouri in Kansas City. He just wrote a beautiful and very moving, emotionally powerful setting of the seven last words from the cross for chorus and orchestra. I’m not quite sure what he’s going to do, but I want him to do something radiant.”

It’s at this point the penny drops – “Is he your son?” I ask. “He is my son,” Davis laughs. “It’s unadulterated, shameless nepotism. But actually, before he left us, Ronald Vermeulen had been talking to Edward about doing something unbeknownst to me. I’m hoping he’ll do something with the chorus.”

The second Davis celebration is a concert version of Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel, an underrated opera that is too often trotted out – especially in Germany – as simply a Christmas potboiler, but one that possesses hidden depths. “I always say that if someone asked me to conduct Hansel and Gretel, every year I would leap at the chance,” Davis enthuses. “It’s not just a pretty piece, it is about living in poverty. It’s truly extraordinary. I conducted it at the Met some years ago, and I remember having a conversation with the principal horn. I said, ‘I have to admit, I’ve always thought this is Wagner’s best opera.’ And he said, ‘I’ve always thought it’s Wagner on Prozac!’ But actually, someone in the Melbourne Symphony said to me recently: ‘It’s Wagner written by a nice person.’ Isn’t that wonderful?”

Sir Andrew Davis

The grand finale will be Davis’s own rearrangement of Messiah, a new version that earned him a Grammy nomination last year. “The idea of colouring Messiah with the tone palette that one has available with the 20th- and 21st-century symphony orchestra is something that always had appealed to me,” Davis explains. “I’ve always had the utmost respect and humility [for Handel and Messiah] and have just tried to enhance things. There are flutes, oboe d’amore, there’s marimba in How Beautiful Are The Feet just doubling the violin line very gently so it gives it a little shimmer. The effects are very subtle. Audiences in Toronto loved it, standing up screaming. I have to confess that when the recording came out I thought the critics are going to massacre it, and they didn’t. They actually got it, which was a great relief.”

No one could accuse Sir Andrew of lacking in variety, then. So what might we expect from the MSO’s Conductor Laureate in the years ahead? “One thing I’m hoping to do is Mahler Eight as the cycle is not complete,” he says. “People say to me, there must be things you still want to do, and there are a few things like Sibelius Six. But actually, I’ve been asking myself that and no, not particularly. There are some things I would have liked to conduct but I probably never will – like Busoni’s Doktor Faust – and I’d like to do some more of the obscure Stravinsky pieces. But I’m at a point in my life where, I don’t care whether I ever conduct Wagner again – except for Parsifal. So I’m going to come back to Melbourne and do my favourite things, I hope, because I do absolutely adore the orchestra and we’ve had a supremely enjoyable time working together.”


The Full Season

Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine