With strings, but no hang-ups: Christopher Mowbray tells how a musical prodigy who hated performing came back on her own terms

Christopher Mowbray
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:16

An orchestra headed by a musical director who starts a concert by using her irreplaceable 18th-century violin as a mock tennis racket while giving a grunting impersonation of Monica Seles tends to get noticed.

When Andreas Guarnerius fashioned the instrument 260 years ago, he could not have known that it would one day be used to entertain music lovers in this way. But then he could not have known that it would pass into the hands of Beverley Davison, a virtuoso violinist who founded Hot Strings, an all-female 15-piece string orchestra, three years ago as part of her comeback.

Ms Davison was born into the world of international music and demonstrated from childhood that she had the makings of a concert star, but the child prodigy developed such stage fright that she became unable to step on to a concert platform.

The daughter of Arthur Davison, a conductor who organised popular classical concerts involving several leading orchestras, she started playing the violin at the age of three and from nine she was - with Nigel Kennedy - among the few attending the Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey. She completed her studies at the Royal Academy of Music and was just 18 when she appeared at the Royal Festival Hall as a soloist in the notoriously difficult Nielsen Violin Concerto with the London Schools' Symphony Orchestra. She played Walton's Violin Sonata at the concert celebrating the composer's 80th birthday, and subsequently made solo appearances on radio and television.

When she was 21, she joined Fires of London, the avant-garde music group that won international acclaim under Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who recently described her as 'one of the most naturally and superbly gifted musicians it has been my privilege to work with'.

But she suffered increasingly from stage fright, which led to her resenting every appearance on a concert platform and, ultimately, music itself. At 25, she could face it no longer. 'It was during a rehearsal that I at last felt I could not go on, and I got on the telephone and cancelled a year's work in 20 minutes,' she recalls. 'I had always been incredibly nervous and I was so bad during my first concert at the Menuhin School that I dropped my violin. My bowing arm would tingle so much that I could not feel my hand and I just accepted that I had to feel that dreadful during a performance, but it became worse as I got older. I felt physical paralysis on stage.

'It surprised everyone when I gave up because I had hidden my problems so well. Only my sister would talk to me about my decision; the rest of my family would not mention it at all because they thought I was completely crazy. They had this image of me, as a slim, elegant soloist, slightly out of breath through dashing from one plane to another on the international concert circuit, but I had broken the mould.'

At this time, though, Ms Davison was far from slim and elegant. Since childhood, she had sought comfort from her unhappiness in chronic bouts of overeating, and her weight had grown to 22 stone.

'There were a lot of expectations of me and pressures put upon me from a very young age and, because I had this need to win my parents' approval, I performed to be a good little girl,' she says. 'The problems with food started while I was at the Menuhin School and just spiralled.

'There was no time for me to be just a child, and it separated me from normal family life. From the age of 10, I compensated for my rigid lifestyle and the aloofness of it all by indulging in binge eating followed by starvation diets. I would diet for up to three months while on tour and then spend a month gorging myself on carbohydrates, sugars, starches and fast food.'

In 1980, she left Fires of London and booked herself into St Thomas's Hospital, near her home in Clapham, south London, but, because there was at that time little understanding of eating disorders, she was put on a ward for diabetics. She discharged herself after two weeks, attended Overeaters Anonymous and then spent a couple of years working on a health farm, where she qualified as a beauty therapist. By the time she left, she had reduced her weight to 16 1/2stone. She had no intention of returning to music.

Over the next two years she held a variety of jobs including driving instructor, telephone sales representative and on the staff of an employment agency - which lasted just one week - before taking her first steps back into the world of music by accepting a teaching post at the Birmingham School of Music (now the Birmingham Conservatoire). She was convinced that she would never play the violin seriously again, but she met someone who changed her mind.

He was Jonny James, a juggler who had joined the Fires of London music theatre shortly after she left it. He persuaded her that classical music could be enjoyed just as any other form of entertainment. For the first time she realised that it was not music she had resented, but the stomach-churning formality imposed on young musicians by protocol.

'I saw that my problem was not the violin, but what I had been doing on it,' she says. 'It was not classical music that was at fault, but rather how I was expressing myself within music. I had to find a way of expressing myself differently.'

The musical world gave her an effusive welcome back. Sir Yehudi Menuhin described her as an excellent instrumentalist; Simon Rattle, who offered her the co-leadership of his City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, said: 'It seems obvious to me that she is one of the most outrageously gifted musicians that this country has produced, not only as a string player, but as an all-round musician.'

Something entirely new was needed, however, and the response was Hot Strings, formed partly as a backing group for Ms Davison's solo work, but also as an orchestra in its own right. Its emphasis is on relaxed entertainment; Beverley Davison fronts the group like a stand-up comic, building up a rapport with her audiences. Hence the expensive tennis racket and jokes about using Ralgex liniment spray as a deodorant.

Hot Strings does not give 'concerts', but presents 'music shows', covering a spectrum from the light to the hefty, so even the least sophisticated listeners are likely to hear something they recognise. 'If You Knew Susie' and 'It Ain't Necessarily So' rub shoulders with works by Copland, Elgar, Bartok and Mozart. Most people give the mixed musical diet and its seasoning of humour a warm welcome.

Many of the modern numbers in the repertoire were arranged by the late Robert Docker, one of Britain's leading musical arrangers and the guiding artistic force behind BBC Radio's Friday Night is Music Night. He was so intrigued by Hot Strings that he gave his services free.

'The nerves are still there and I feel as if I am going to die just before going on stage,' says Ms Davison. 'But now I can cope with them because I am expressing myself musically in the way I always should have done.' She is now 37 and married to Jonny James, relying on his advice as an entertainer and on his emotional support in her continuing battle against stage fright and food addiction.

'The whole act is a lot more relaxed and the formality has been taken away because I am driving the show. It helps me enormously to know that I have the freedom to talk to the audience if I want to, and that is the big difference. I am trying to get away from the straitjacket of classical music and present a number of styles in a down-to-earth way.'

The orchestra was conceived as an all-female outfit, partly as Beverley Davison's personal statement against the male domination of classical music, and partly because she felt unable to cope with the male ego. However, she is now forming a five-piece band composed of herself and four men. She claims that Classical Eruptions - violin, electric bass, two synthesisers and percussion - will take classical music into a new dimension. It will be playing her own arrangements and is to appear on television later this year.

(Photographs omitted)

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