Meredith Davies

Conductor known as a sympathetic interpreter of Britten's operas
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The Independent Online

The conductor Meredith Davies was perhaps best known as an immensely sympathetic interpreter of the operas of Benjamin Britten at the Aldeburgh Festival and at Covent Garden. But before that, he was a notable cathedral organist and choral conductor of a dozen years' experience.

Albert Meredith Davies, organist, conductor, teacher and administrator: born Birkenhead, Cheshire 30 July 1922; organist, Cathedral Church of St Alban 1947-49; organist, Hereford Cathedral 1949-56; organist and supernumerary fellow, New College, Oxford 1956-59; associate conductor, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra 1957-59, deputy musical director 1959-60; conductor, City of Birmingham Choir 1957-64; musical director, English Opera Group 1963-65; musical director, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra 1964-71; chief conductor, BBC Training Orchestra 1969-72; Principal, Trinity College of Music 1979-88; CBE 1982; married 1949 Betty Bates (two sons, one daughter, and one son deceased), (one daughter, and one son deceased, with Cara Lancaster); died New Alresford, Hampshire 9 March 2005.

The conductor Meredith Davies was perhaps best known as an immensely sympathetic interpreter of the operas of Benjamin Britten at the Aldeburgh Festival and at Covent Garden. But before that, he was a notable cathedral organist and choral conductor of a dozen years' experience.

It was a performance in Birmingham of Britten's Spring Symphony that drew the attention of the composer to Davies, who was invited to conduct for the English Opera Group in 1960. This led to a whole new career conducting operas by Britten, and other composers including Malcolm Williamson and Lennox Berkeley, at Aldeburgh as well as at Covent Garden and Sadler's Wells.

Born in Birkenhead, Cheshire in 1922, Meredith Davies at the age of seven became a junior exhibitioner at the Royal College of Music in London - as a cellist. He soon showed an interest in the organ, and was taken as a pupil by the great organist George Thalben-Ball. In 1936 he was admitted as a Fellow to the Royal College of Organists. In 1941 he went up to Oxford as an organ scholar at Keble College.

Called up in 1942, he served for three years in the Royal Artillery, returning to Keble on demob. In 1947 he was appointed organist at St Albans Cathedral and two years later moved to Hereford Cathedral, where he was principal conductor of the Three Choirs Festival in 1952 and 1955.

Encouraged by Sir Adrian Boult to become a full-time conductor, Davies took advanced courses with Fernando Previtali in 1954 and 1956 at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome. In 1956 he became organist at New College, Oxford, but resigned after becoming conductor of the City of Birmingham choir and associate and, in 1959, deputy music director of the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. The following year came his engagement to conduct with the English Opera Group and the beginning of his new career.

The English Opera Group was formed in 1946 to promote new operas by Britten and other contemporary composers. The company toured and also appeared every summer at the Aldeburgh Festival. During the 1960s Davies conducted Britten's The Rape of Lucretia, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Albert Herring, The Turn of the Screw, Let's Make an Opera and Britten's version of The Beggar's Opera, either on tour, at Aldeburgh, or at Sadler's Wells Theatre when the EOG visited London. He also shared with the composer the conducting of Britten's War Requiem at the premiere in Coventry Cathedral in 1962 and at other, later performances.

Davies made a very successful Covent Garden début in November 1960, conducting Peter Grimes. His handling of the big choral ensembles received particular praise. Early in 1961 he conducted more performances of Grimes before going to Vancouver in July for the North American premiere of A Midsummer Night's Dream. He conducted the Covent Garden production of that opera at the Edinburgh Festival, taking over from Georg Solti, and in December conducted it at Covent Garden. Davies conveyed all the magical quality of Britten's score and also brought humour to the scenes of the lovers and the mechanicals.

The following year Davies conducted A Village Romeo and Juliet for Sadler's Wells Opera (now English National Opera) and travelled to Buenos Aires for the South American premiere of A Midsummer Night's Dream. EOG took The Turn of the Screw to Edinburgh, before making the customary visit to Sadler's Wells.

In 1963 Davies conducted a new production of Peter Grimes for Sadler's Wells Opera, which opened in Oxford in April, and toured to Germany in June, gaining plaudits everywhere, before opening in London in October to even greater praise. This was one of the finest performances of Peter Grimes I ever heard.

Late in 1963 Davies conducted Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites, an opera that depends a great deal on the conductor's skill and loving care, at Covent Garden. At the 1964 Aldeburgh Festival came the premiere of Malcolm Williamson's English Eccentrics, a clever setting of the book by Edith Sitwell. That September, EOG set out on an historic tour of the Soviet Union, visiting Leningrad, Riga and Moscow. Davies had recently been appointed music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and, after leaving Russia, he travelled directly to Canada.

During his seven years in Vancouver, Davies returned to the UK about every two years. In 1965 he came back for Billy Budd at Covent Garden; the ensembles were again quite magnificent. He also conducted Let's Make an Opera at Aldeburgh, which was a great success. Davies was always at his best with children in the opera house. In the 1967 Aldeburgh Festival he conducted the premiere of Lennox Berkeley's The Castaway, a setting of the encounter between Odysseus and Nausicaa. In 1969 he took the EOG Midsummer Night's Dream to the Flanders Festival and conducted English Eccentrics for the London Opera Centre at Sadler's Wells, inspiring the students to give a splendid performance.

For some years Davies was conductor of the BBC Training Orchestra and in 1972 he was appointed conductor of the Royal Choral Society. The same year he joined the teaching staff of the Royal College of Music. During the 1970s he continued to conduct some opera performances. These included the British premiere of Alexander Goehr's Arden Must Die, given by the New Opera Company at Sadler's Wells, and also Puccini's La rondine, with June Bronhill in the title role, presented by EOG at the same theatre; both in 1974.

In 1976 he conducted The Turn of the Screw for English Music Theatre, the successor to EOG, at the Brighton Festival. In 1980 he took up the baton again in an emergency to conduct Thea Musgrave's Mary, Queen of Scots for Scottish Opera at Sadler's Wells when the composer became ill.

In 1979 Davies was appointed Principal of Trinity College of Music, London, where he inaugurated an Opera Group which gave yearly performances at the Bloomsbury Theatre. He remained at Trinity College until 1988 and also worked with the London School Symphony Orchestra.

His finest recordings include two operas by Vaughan Williams: Riders to the Sea and Sir John in Love, and two by Delius, A Village Romeo and Juliet and Fennimore and Gerda.

Elizabeth Forbes

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