In Part 1 of our interview with Sir Andrew Davis, Music Director and Principal Conductor of Lyric Opera of Chicago, we explored the esteemed conductor’s musical background (good on keyboards, not great on oboe) and the composers and conductors that led him to fall in love with music (Stravinsky & Berg, Barbirolli & Klemperer).
For Part 2, we’re sharing more of the conversation related to Maestro Davis’ advice to young musicians, and what it means for a youth orchestra to take on a piece like Wagner’s Ring cycle. His visit to Symphony Orchestra’s rehearsal in February had a big impact on Symphony Orchestra musicians. Emma Krause, Symphony Orchestra Principal Flute, reflected on how helpful Maestro Davis’ visit was in “understanding of the opera itself and how to tell the story through our own music.” Co-concertmaster Ariana O’Connell said that, “working with Sir Andrew Davis gave me insight into the thought process of one of the most achieved musicians of our time. This rehearsal showed me what my future as a violinist has the potential to be someday.”
Symphony Orchestra musicians Catherine Ramsey and Oliver Talukder interviewed Sir Andrew Davis for the CYSO Social Media Team. Read on for more of Maestro Davis’ insights on playing Wagner and his advice for young musicians.
Note: this interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity
OT: Why did you want to work with CYSO and how was conducting us today?
SAD: Well, I love working with students. I don’t get that much opportunity, actually. When I was conductor of the Toronto Symphony, I used to work with a youth orchestra there regularly. There is some work to be done aside from sitting down and tuning chords. [But the performance] should be excellent. I was amazed. I have always enjoyed working with young people. This was an opportunity that I get all too seldom.
OT: What do you think a musician learns from playing in an orchestra as compared to playing as a soloist?
SAD: It was George Szell, who was a great conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, who said that basically, an orchestra is just an enormous chamber group. You have to listen to what your colleagues are doing and make sure what you do fits in. That is, to me, the biggest thing that orchestras should strive for: to have that sensitivity to everything that is going on around you and where your place is in it.
OT: For teenagers who want to study music, what is a piece of advice you would give us?
SAD: You have to know you’ve got a lot of hard work ahead of you. You have to love music enough to endure the hours and hours of study you have to do, and the fact that it is a very competitive profession as well. I think you also have to be realistic. I think there are people that are enormously talented. There have also been a lot of young musicians I have encountered that I thought could easily go on to have very successful careers in the professional world but they have chosen to do other things, followed their father’s advice and gone on to become a doctor or a lawyer. If you are really driven with a great passion to do it, then stick to it. Just be prepared for anything that may come along.
“The biggest thing that orchestras should strive for [is] to have that sensitivity to everything that is going on around you and where your place is in it.”
CR: For “The Ring Without Words,” [the Ring cycle excerpts Symphony Orchestra will perform] the piece that we’re playing this spring, do you have a favorite section of the piece?
SAD: The end, of course, is astonishing, and the funeral music. I have lots of favorite things. For instance, in Siegfried, the second act is a very funny act…it’s what I call “German humor,” when Siegfried is trying to make an instrument to try and attract the birds’ attention. Offstage, an English horn has to play very badly! I love that scene because it’s the moment where Siegfried is not the hero who is forging the sword, he is in the middle of nature… he’s still very young and he’s childlike in a way…it’s the most fantastic, passionate music.
CR: Obviously this piece is a big undertaking even for professional musicians. What do you think that we, as young musicians, can take away from learning and performing this piece?
SAD: It should make you want to come and see the whole Ring when we do it! I think that the selection [The Ring Without Words] has some of the best bits of all four operas. It gives you some idea of the scope and particularly of the way Wagner uses the orchestra, which was, in his time, quite revolutionary. If you think of Brahms… there is a sort of line you can follow. Some of Wagner’s ideas about instrumentation were quite radical at the time. I hope what you take away from this is the scope of it. I hope it gives you—and I hope it gives the audience—a reason to think, “Ah, well, this is rather good.”
A huge thank you to Maestro Davis for sitting down to share his insights with us!