Born April 16, 1944 in Toledo, OH; son of Harry (a factory foreman) and Lois (maiden name, Shuller) Davies; married Molly Robison (a filmmaker), later divorced; married Renate Gola; children: (with Robison) Annabel, James, April; (with Gola) two children. Education: Julliard School of Music, B.A., 1966; M.A., 1968; D.M.A., 1972. Addresses: Home--Stuttgart, Germany. Office--American Composers Orchestra, 1775 Broadway, Suite 525, New York, NY 10019-1903.

It is clear that conductor Dennis Russell Davies once hoped to make his career at home rather than abroad, but the kind of professional opportunities he sought were not to be found in the United States. So American audiences have come to know his work from guest appearances, tours with European orchestras, and recordings. He moved to Germany in 1980 and has held a series of full-time positions in Europe, including general music director of the City of Bonn. His resume once led K. Robert Schwarz to dub him "a model of the modern-day globe-hopping maestro" in the New York Times. Davies has also forged a reputation for being an adept symphony and opera conductor as well as a passionate, uncompromising advocate of new symphonic music. Moreover, these two spheres of interest have helped to form Davies' particular style of conducting, which stresses understanding a composer's larger emotional intent rather than becoming bogged down by the myriad of small directions in a written score.

A native of Toledo, Ohio, Davies was only three years old when he began picking out melodies on a piano. His father, a factory foreman who played the piano, was thrilled by his son's precociousness and had him taking lessons by the time he was six. Davies went on to make his professional debut on the piano in a Toledo Symphony Orchestra concert in 1961 and, soon thereafter, enrolled at the Julliard School of Music in New York City. While an undergraduate student at Julliard, the young man's interest shifted from the piano to conducting, and as a graduate student he formed the Julliard Ensemble with faculty composer Luciano Berio. The ensemble performed under Davies' direction until 1974 in forums such as the New and Newer Music series at Lincoln Center, with the express purpose of presenting twentieth-century compositions.

In 1972, Davies took on the job of music director for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, a position he held for eight years. According to Michael Anthony in the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune, Davies "built the Chamber Orchestra into a major ensemble with an international reputation for bold programming." In conversation with Anthony, Davies remarked that "St. Paul was my first real job" and remembered, "Yeah, I was considered fairly far out there.... I was quite a bit younger then, and full of self-confidence, which I guess I still have, to the extent that one has it having been tempered by experience." What made Davies exceptional or "far out" was his selection of works by contemporary composers such as John Cage, Virgil Thomson, and Hans Werner Henze, which he conducted along with the traditional staples of the orchestra's schedule, such as Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach.

The conductor's success in St. Paul, however, did not translate into a more prestigious conducting job in the United States. In 1980, he accepted a job in Germany as music director for the Württemberg State Opera in Stuttgart. Ten years later, Richard Dyer remembered this transition in the Boston Globe, "he was the most underappreciated American conductor, about to embark for his first full-time appointment in Europe." When the conductor received his next promotion in the musical world, it was to become the music director for the City of Bonn. This post gave him the responsibility of conducting the Bonn orchestra and opera, directing a Beethoven festival, and otherwise planning the city's classical music programs. Davies evaluated the situation in the New York Times. "It's pretty hard to imagine a situation in the States that could compare to that.... Basically I don't have to choose between concerts and opera; my regular work is music director of the symphony orchestra, which also plays the opera. It makes for a very rounded overview." Davies remained in this position from 1987 to 1995.

Davies has often returned to the United States, leading the Bonn and Stuttgart orchestras and as a guest conductor. He has developed long-standing relationships with the Cabrillo Festival in California and the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. From 1991 to 1995, he was the principal conductor of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, which had just been joined with the Brooklyn Academy of Music at the time of his appointment. In a 1990 New York Times interview, Davies eagerly anticipated the new post, saying "I hope that the image of the Brooklyn Philharmonic will become more reflective of the work that is in the [progressive] tradition of the Brooklyn Academy. You know, times have changed, and why shouldn't our cultural institutions be in the forefront of that change?" An older alliance with the American Composers Orchestra, which Davies helped co-found in 1977, has perhaps given him a greater opportunity to showcase new music. A regular conductor with the orchestra, he became the group's music director in 1995.

Programmed New Music

In the often conservative world of classical music, it is somtimes difficult to program contemporary music, but Davies has taken a firm stance on the issue. K. Robert Schwarz commented in a 1996 Opera News article, "[Davies] has managed to balance his dual careers in the symphony and opera worlds, and he has never allowed the conservatism of presenting organizations to diminish his enthusiasm for the new." As if to prove his resolve on this issue, the conductor told Schwarz, "They don't have to hire me, and I don't have to work for them." Throughout his career, Davies has served to introduce the works of many contemporary composers to audiences that might not otherwise seek out such music. For example, Richard Dyer reviewed a Davies-conducted American Composers Orchestra recording of compositions by Roger Sessions in the Boston Globe, "Davies has taken the trouble to learn the music--so convincingly that many listeners will want to learn it too. This recording will not be a best seller, but it is truly useful, truly inspiring, and that is a rare and cherishable quality." But even Davies is aware that some of his forays into unfamiliar territory are not entirely welcome. "A good healthy boo at a concert is not necessarily a bad thing. I think there's a predictability about a lot of concerts that those of us who make programs really have to avoid."

As a proponent of contemporary classical music, Davies has had the opportunity to work with many composers, an experience that has made him a better conductor all around. He commented in the Boston Globe, "I've also found that working with composers is a very freeing thing. You realize that you don't have to be a slave to the score. You don't want to be untrue to the score, but being a slave is just as bad. What you have to respect is the style of the composition, its integrity, and above all, the emotional impact of the music." Schwarz gave his own take on the interplay between Davies' expertise in old and new music in Opera News. "Davies is no extroverted, sloppy romantic, either as an interpreter or as a conductor. He wields his stick with brisk economy, and his readings of standard symphonic works tend to be unsentimental and sharply articulated. Yet their lean textures and refreshing clarity of line are in themselves distinctive. Perhaps the experience of conducting so much new music has encouraged such precision."

Made Late Met Debut

In 1996, Davies made his Metropolitan Opera debut in New York City conducting Philip Glass's The Voyage. It would seem fitting that Davies was selected to direct Glass's opera, because the conductor has had a long working relationship with the American composer. But at the same time, Davies seemingly still has trouble reconciling the diversity of his interests with American audiences and concert hall managers.

In a 1990 New York Times interview with Schwarz, he once fumed, "Really, it has to do with the fact that for the public if you do any new music at all you're a little bit unusual. And the fact is that I'm committed to new music and I'm proud of it--but I don't think it should be a surprise that I also need and want to do older music." In 1996, Boston Globe critic Richard Dyer remarked that Davies "remains something of a prophet without honor." The conductor found himself newly ensconced as the chief conductor of the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra and the Vienna Radio Symphony that same year. The demands of these two jobs left him uncertain whether he, his wife soprano Renate Gola, and two children would continue to live in Stuttgart.

by Paula Pyzik Scott

Dennis Russell Davies's Career

Served as Norwalk, CN Symphony Orchestra music director, 1968-72; St. Paul Chamber Orchestra music director, 1972-80; Württemberg State Opera music director, 1980-87; City of Bonn general music director, 1987-95; Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra chief conductor, 1995 to present; Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra chief conductor, 1995 to present; also acted as regular guest conductor for the Netherlands Opera, Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Radio Orchestra, Chicago Lyric Opera, and Stuttgart Opera; Cabrillo Music Festival music director, 1974-92; White Mountain Festival music director, 1975-77; Julliard Ensemble conductor, 1968-74; Flying Dutchman Bayreuth Festival conductor, 1978-80; Brooklyn Philharmonic principal conductor, 1991-95; American Composers Orchestra music director, 1995--.

Famous Works

Further Reading


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