Conductor of hope and glory

John Walsh meets... Andrew Davis
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The taxi driver who took me from Lewes Station to Andrew Davis's house was impressed, but cool about it. "The bloke who does the Proms thing, right? Yeah, Rule, Britannia, all that. Mind you, we have quite a few famous people living round here. See that house?" He squared his shoulders with local pride. "Richard Stilgoe used to live there."

My, my, the hierarchy of fame. If Andrew Davis's name isn't better known to the nation at large, as the most versatile and most English of British conductors, it isn't for any lack of application on his part. Not only has he been Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra since 1989, and Music Director of Glyndebourne for a year longer, this head-spinningly busy man has been living in a recent maelstrom of recording dates, concert tours, foreign trips, millennium discussions, rehearsals... and, in the middle of it all, he's been finding himself a new job abroad.

But he's a modest figure in a world where conductors are turning more and more into monstres sacres, and is still best known for presiding over the rumpus room of elephantine patriotic fun that is the Last Night of the Proms at London's Albert Hall. Not only has Davis hosted more Last Nights than anyone since the glory days of Sir Malcolm Sargent. He's thrown himself with more evident merriment than anyone else into the role of benevolent musical uncle - Davis conducting Henry Woods' Fantasia on British Sea Shanties through a jungle of orchestrated parps and duck calls and random honks from the motor-horn madcaps in the arena; Davis whirling round to face the audience, his fringe of hair sweeping wetly aside like a Timotei commercial, to lead the audience in the chorus of Rule, Britannia; Davis's Bernsteinian thrash-baton climaxes to the works of Mahler; Davis brushing away the tendrils of party-popper streamers that eventually fringe his face like pastel dreadlocks, in order to make a speech that tactfully appeals to the assembled anoraks' musical knowledge, as well as their, you know, incorrigible zaniness...

"The Last Night of the Proms is something I enjoy enormously, though I look forward to it with a mixture of eager anticipation and dread," he told me. "You might think nothing can go wrong, but it certainly can. The emotional temperature varies considerably year by year. I think it was 1994 when things got really out of hand. Someone tipped about 200 balloons into the audience, and they were bursting - not because people were pricking them, I think, but because of the heat. But everyone was wound up, possibly because we'd finished the first half of the concert with perhaps the fastest Belshazzar's Feast ever played, and it was so exciting, they were virtually hysterical by the time the second half began." He giggled delightedly. "That was the year Sir John Drummond [the former controller of Radio 3 and irascible Proms commissar] decided to rap the children over the knuckles. But it had an effect. Next year they were much better behaved."

I thought of the night when, well beyond the call of duty, Davis sung to the audience his self-composed variant of Gilbert and Sullivan's famous Pirates of Penzance song, "A Modern Major General". The first two lines ran: "This is the very model of a modern music festival / With entertainment sonic, promenadable and aestival" - Davis had even found a rhyme for "festival" with a semi-obsolete word meaning "summery". His performance betrayed an indulgence with the promenaders, of a kind unknown to Sir John.

Did he ever meet the hard-core Promenaders, the ones who chant in unison at the conductor, the musicians and the audience in the gallery? "Occasionally I get little notes from them saying `Could you mention so-and-so in your speech, could you say Happy Birthday to my Auntie Vi' and so on. Sometimes it's more, er, viable things..." Did he ever lose patience with them? "Yes, once when a balloon burst in the middle of a wonderful cello solo in the Sea Songs, it made me furious. I'd been working hard that summer, and I had a rather short fuse." Did he yell at them? "Oh no - I just gritted my teeth..."

Sitting on the sofa of his immaculately tidy sitting-room, with its great picture window that looks out over the rolling sweep of the South Downs, Davis does not seem a man easily roused to anger. His burly frame encased in a violently patterned jumper, he bounces slightly while talking and searches for little anecdotes to enliven his replies. His face is a study. He has alarming eyes that bulge like peeled grapes but soften into a brilliant smile, that suddenly stops dead. With the ragged and grey-flecked beard below, and the rich chestnut hair above, he can look at different moments like a benevolent scoutmaster or one of the doomed knights in Herzog's Aguirre, Wrath of God. You get the impression of a huge, serious musical intelligence that has learnt affability along the way. The only silences that interrupt his flow of bonhomie are connected with death. And it's a subject that will hang over tonight's proceedings, because of the two shocking recent demises that removed both Sir Georg Solti (who was to have conducted last night's Verdi Requiem) and, some would say, the emotional heart of England.

"We'd been on holiday in Italy for a fortnight, and Diana's funeral was on the day we returned. We watched the first repeat. I thought the music for the service was beautifully done, extremely well chosen - the Purcell, the traditional hymns. The Abbey choir were fabulous. And I thought Elton John was great, though I just don't know how he managed to do it. One knows how it is when someone you're close to..." His voice dies away. Davis's own mother died last year. Was it true he and Elton John were related? "Well... his... It's... No, I mean there's a distant part of my family that are Dwights from vaguely the same part of the world." You mean Pinner? "Ah no, Buckinghamshire."

We leave this highly contentious topic, never to return. Did he anticipate a mood of grief at the Albert Hall? "I think it'll be lively. We are slowly moving away from..." (Silence fell again). "But I think this is an illness that's going to keep the country in its grip for a while yet. I'm going to make some reference to the Princess in the speech. It's something I've been thinking about at length. It's been two weeks since she died, and perhaps one should get on with life, but it's had such a profound effect on everybody, something needs to be... But I'm not going to suggest that we sing `Land of Hope and Glory' in her memory."

Ah yes, that song that became such a cliche, Elgar himself got sick of hearing it. In a concert recorded towards the end of his life, the great composer can be heard wearily instructing the orchestra, "Play it as if you never heard it before." It's become, thanks to the Proms and Davis, a solid export success. "It fascinates me that the Proms have become so popular overseas. You'd think nobody but the British could be remotely interested but in Germany, Holland, Sweden, people are always talking to me about it. Even Japan. I was there earlier this year with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. We arrived for rehearsal, and the organiser came up and said, `You will play Pomp and Circumstance, won't you?' I said, `Sorry, no, we haven't brought the music.' They were horrified. `It's in the programme,' they said. `If we get the music, will you play it?' and I said, `Sure'. That was at 5.30pm, and with typical Japanese efficiency they had the music by 7.30pm. The concert went ahead, we played the last piece and I announced that, for an encore, we were going to play Pomp and Circumstance. A great cheer went up. I turned round and started conducting - and there was this odd expression on the orchestra's face. So I turned round, and everyone in the audience had pulled out a Union Jack and was waving it, grinning ecstatically."

The Proms maestro will preside over these pleasant excursions for only three more years - his last Last Night will be in September 2000, after which he leaves these shores with his American wife, Gianna Rolandi, and their eight-year-old son Edward (of whom there's a charming photograph, on the table beneath a spectacular Tiffany lamp, seen playing the piano in an Athens concert hall, clad in a stylish Hussar dressing-gown) for Chicago, there to direct the Chicago Lyric Opera. It's the culmination of a life spent guest-starring in several dozen orchestras world-wide.

Davis's curriculum vitae is an unbroken trajectory of music-making in every corner of the globe. He was born in a Nissen hut, a wartime hospital in the grounds of Ashridge House, Hertfordshire, but grew up in Chesham, Bucks, before the family moved to Watford. His father was a printer's compositor, who sang in the church choir; his mother is an on-off parlour pianist. "I started playing the piano when I was five or six, with the music teacher up the street and just figured out that I liked it. I wasn't a great prodigy. At 10 or 11, I played for the Hertfordshire country music adviser, who recommended me for a junior exhibitionship at the Royal Academy, where I used to go on Saturdays and then all through my teens." What kind of teenager was he, this chap whose first or second record purchase was the Berg violin concerto? David leapt to his feet. "You really want to know what I was like? Look." He crossed the room and returned with a monochrome holiday snap: two beaming parents, looking old before their time in that weary post-war way, one pretty, pubertal sister, two small brothers astride Muffin the Mule - and, standing seriously aloof from the family, one 15- ish Andrew with tiny ice-cream cone and posing cockatoo. His long gawky face and disastrous NHS specs, his fifth-form clothes and air of spotty embarrassment are hard to connect with the cool and beaming sensualist beside me. "It's the worst photograph ever taken of me," he confesses. "My mother died but my father's alive at 83, and doesn't look that much different now." But Andrew... "Yes, I know. I was a typical school swot, an eccentric musician." This was the late Fifties, I said. Was he aware of coffee bars, Elvis Presley, rock 'n' roll? "Oh, I noticed them, but only with disapproval. I was a horrid little prig, basically. Then I started to play the organ when I was 15, and my voice broke and the assistant organiser at the local church left at the same time, and I stepped in." Another professional break came at the Watford's celebrated Palace Theatre, where "an Italian trio used to play during the interval. The pianist was off for six weeks with jaundice, and they asked me to stand in. We played everything. Lots of Rogers and Hammerstein selections. One week there was a Blackpool farce and we played `O I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside'; the next week it was Henry V. It was great. I fell in love with the theatre." He thinks back and a sweet teen-dream smile crossed his face. "I fell in love with the leading lady too, a complete schoolboy crush." You can almost imagine the moment that the crowd-pleasing showman emerged from the geeky young academic. He went on to be organ scholar at King's College, Cambridge, but decided to switch to conducting, made his debut with a student orchestra playing Haydn divertimenti, and won a grant that took him to the Accademia di St Cecilia in Rome. His big break came in 1970 when he stepped in at short notice (stepping-in is a leitmotif of his early career) at the Festival Hall to conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Janacek's impossibly difficult Glagolitic Mass. He was made. By 30, he had conducted every major orchestra in America, toured the Far East and Israel. Four years later, he'd made it as far as China, conducting the rusty Peking Central Philharmonic in Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. "It was the only one that hadn't been disbanded in the Cultural Revolution," he recalls. "I met the conductor of the Shanghai Philharmonic, who'd spent the eight years of the Revolution working as the bicycle parking attendant outside the building where he used to conduct..."

David spent 13 years with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, playing to ever-increasing audiences and indulging his fondness for his favourites - Elgar, Mendelssohn, Stravinsky, Mahler, Rossini. This eclectic stew of compositional flavours is typical of a man who loves using an orchestra to bring out the essence of contrasting idioms, who thought nothing of putting, say, Stravinsky and Richard Strauss on the same bill at the Festival Hall.

"There's been a lot of complaining that orchestras all sound the same these days," he said, "but of course, they don't. The Philadelphia for instance, in the years when Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy were running it, was distinguished by its voluptuous string sound - which was great, but you wouldn't want to hear them doing, say, Mozart. Now they're much more flexible, and people say they've lost their distinctive sound. It's a balance..." But you don't want an orchestra that homogenises the extremes of the repertoire? "No, indeed, it's something I've fought against all my professional life. What I've always tried to do with the orchestras I've worked with, is find that versatility and flexibility for things that are important."

"Flexibility" is one of Davis's words. It's something the BBCSO has needed, in order to accompany him through his long-standing obsession with 20th- century English composers - Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Michael Tippett - and his fearless engagement with the home avant-garde, including Judith Weir whose work is featured in the Proms tonight. But spend an hour in the company of this charmingly explosive man - four parts hyper-precise academic, six parts adrenaline-fuelled populariser - and you feel that, had you a micron of musical talent and a French horn, you'd follow him anywhere. Before he legs it to the Windy City ("It's bloody cold there, I know, but I survived Toronto for 13 years and Chicago is such an exciting place to be"), we should celebrate his remarkable talent with something more than duck-noises, motor-horns and plastic parrots. Go for it, Promenaders.

The first part of Last Night of the Proms is broadcast 7.30pm tonight on BBC2; the second part will be broadcast from 9pm on BBC1. There is a simultaneous broadcast on Radio 3