Entertainment & Arts

Sir Andrew Davis on the Proms: 'People ask me if I still get nervous'

Sir Andrew Davis Image copyright Dario Acosta
Image caption Sir Andrew Davis: 'The Albert Hall is still my most preferred concert hall in London. I love the atmosphere there.'

World famous conductor Sir Andrew Davis is one of the most familiar faces at the Proms.

Having first conducted there in 1971, and regularly since, he is back in 2014 to launch the musical festivities with a First Night performance of Elgar's The Kingdom.

Sir Andrew, who turned 70 in February, is one of four of this year's British Proms conductors celebrating significant birthdays.

Sir Neville Marriner - who last conducted a Prom in 1997 - is 90, while Sir Roger Norrington is 80 and Donald Runnicles turns 60 in November.

After 11 years with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sir Andrew became music director and principal conductor of Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2000. In 2013 he also became chief conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

He returns to the Albert Hall on 19 August when the Melbourne orchestra makes its Proms debut with Strauss's Don Jon, Elgar's Cello Concerto and Symphonie fantastique by Berlioz.

We spoke to Sir Andrew during rehearsals for Friday's opening performance.

What is it about Elgar's The Kingdom that makes it ideal for First Night of the Proms?

There's a devotional sense about it, but it's very human at the same time.

I find the ending one of the most deeply moving things in music. It is serene but also joyous and exultant at times.

It's not a riotous piece to get everybody on their feet, but it's a wonderful statement and the music is Elgar at his greatest.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Sir Andrew Davis: 'The Proms is something very special and it's very British, and it gets idiotically British on the Last Night.'

I'm sure all the Elgar fans are going to be delighted because it doesn't get performed that often.

Having performed so many times at the Proms, do you still have a sense of excitement on the podium?

Oh yes, absolutely. The Albert Hall is still my most preferred concert hall in London. I love the atmosphere there.

There's a strong international flavour to this year's Proms. How do you feel about performing here with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra?

I can't wait to hear what the Prommers think of them.

The Symphonie fantastique is one of the most remarkable pieces. I always think it occupies a similar place in musical history to that occupied by The Rite of Spring. They were both revolutionary in their way.

What are you earliest memories of the Proms?

I remember hearing a performance of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius that made a deep impression on me.

I earned money from a paper round and I saved up and bought a record player.

The first record I bought was The Dream of Gerontius. It was on two LPs, but I just bought the first one because I couldn't afford the second.

When we performed it in Berlin and I told them this story and said that if it appeared that I knew part one better than part two - that's the reason.

How have the Proms changed over the years?

I don't know that they have - it's still the greatest music festival in the world.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Veteran conductor Sir Neville Marriner is a good friend of Sir Andrew

I used to come up on the Metropolitan Line and Prom myself in the arena in my teens.

I suppose there's more variety of music now - there's jazz and world music, although there was always a lot of contemporary music - even in the old days.

It's always been an adventurous kind of programme that is all things to all music lovers.

This is a Proms with some big birthdays. At the age of 90, Sir Neville Marriner is thought to be the oldest conductor to perform at the Proms.

Neville and I go back a long way. I was an organ scholar at Cambridge from 1963-67 and with the choir we used to do a lot of recording with [Marriner's] Academy of St Martin in the Fields.

When he got his Knighthood I asked him: "What's it like? Does it make any difference?" And he said: "It's great for getting a good table in a restaurant!"

What's it like conducting Last Night of the Proms?

The Proms is something very special and it's very British, and it gets idiotically British on the Last Night.

When the Last Night loomed ahead of me, I'd look at it with a mixture of eager anticipation and total dread.

Are you dreading First Night of the Proms?

No, but I'll be nervous. People ask me if I still get nervous, and I say the day I don't get nervous I'll pack it in.

It's a huge responsibility bringing this wonderful music to life and I love it. I'm addicted to it.

Prom 1: First Night of the Proms is on Friday 18 July at 7.30pm on Radio 3, and on BBC Two and online.

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