Conductor Richard Davis: an interview with the maestro

Richard Davis joined the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music in early 2017 as Associate Professor in Music and Head of Orchestral Studies. A professional flautist and conductor of international distinction he shares his thoughts on conducting, his new city and his plans for the future. 

By Paul Dalgarno

Hi Richard, you’ve been at the MCM since early 2017. Can you tell us what brought you to Melbourne?

A glass of red wine in Manchester in 2014 with Derek Jones (Head of Woodwind here at the MCM) was the catalyst that resulted in me emigrating to Australia. I was, at that point, Principal Flute with the BBC Philharmonic and Head of Flute at the Royal Northern College of Music, and Derek was a visiting tutor.

I had just returned to playing after having had some time out to take a master’s degree in orchestral conducting. Professional conducting work was beginning to come in and Derek said that he would mention my name to his colleagues in Melbourne with a view to inviting me over as a guest conductor. I didn’t expect him to actually do it …

But in 2016 it actually happened and I was invited to conduct a concert in Hamer Hall. During my research of the Conservatorium I discovered that a full-time conducting position was just being opened up. I had got my playing job at the age of 20 and felt that, with more than 30 years of playing experience, it was possibly the right time to move on.

I was immediately struck by the high standard of the University of Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Being offered the opportunity to work regularly with such talented young musicians – to train, inspire and watch them develop and hone their skills – was a real pull for me.

Richard Davis. By Jonathan Davis.

On a purely professional conducting level, it seems to be working out quite well, too. I have been up to conduct the Queensland Symphony Orchestra several times already and have been asked to conduct a subscription concert next year with them as well. I’ve also been invited over to New Zealand a few times to conduct and, in the next few months, have two concerts directing the BBC Philharmonic and one with Simon Rattle’s old orchestra, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

What’s been your impression of Melbourne in your first year? Has anything surprised you? 

I try to tell people here that the standard of music-making in Australia is exactly the same as it is in Europe and often, it seems, they don’t believe me until they go over there and see it for themselves. I’m in Melbourne because I know what a good thing we have going for us.

With our new Master of Music (Orchestral Performance) about to begin in partnership with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO), and the amazing new Ian Potter Southbank Centre due for completion by late next year, I’m sure more and more people will see this too.

As a city, Melbourne is exciting, vibrant and beautiful. There’s so much culture on offer all of the time. And my dogs (yes, we brought our two dogs over) love living beside the beach.

The only real shock for me has been the weather. In the UK, we’re led to believe it’s all sunshine and heat in Australia. I live in a house without insulation, and my wife and I didn’t even bring any winter clothes with us from the UK. Next year we’ll be better prepared.

You will be integral to the forthcoming Master of Music (Orchestral Performance). What are your hopes for the course?

The new Master of Music will hopefully put the MCM firmly on the map for orchestral training. It’s the brainchild of the MCM’s Dr Joel Brennan – but I do hope to be an integral part of its inaugural year. I had the pleasure of listening to all of the applicants’ auditions, and the standard is high.

The students who have been accepted will be mentored by members of the MSO and will receive regular lessons on ensemble practices, audition techniques and much more. And the icing on the cake is that they actually get to play some sessions and performances with the MSO – an amazing opportunity for any young musician with a passion for becoming an orchestral musician.

Richard Davis. By Andrew Price.

What’s your first memory of music?

My grandfather wanted one of his five grandchildren to be a classical musician and bought all of us instruments. I was given a violin and my sisters got a piano and a French horn. My two cousins received a clarinet and trumpet. I don’t actually remember whether we had any say in these choices because we were pretty young, but it worked – two out of five of us became professional musicians.

You’re a professional flautist and conductor. Does being a performer feed into being a conductor and vice versa? How so? 

I was taken to orchestral concerts all throughout my childhood and expressed an interest in conducting for many years before playing the flute. And then, all through my conservatoire training, conducting was my hidden passion. I got offered a principal flute playing job at a very young age and just had to put the conducting dream on the back burner – which is exactly where marriage, a mortgage and children kept it for many years.

Years of studying a variety of conductors – their different techniques and interpretations (and standards) – gave me an understanding of what orchestral musicians wanted, what worked and what didn’t.

In 2008, I decided to leave my job in the BBC and go back to college to study conducting. I was lucky that the BBC chose to keep my job open for me and also offered me lots of conducting work with them when I returned.

It could have so easily not worked out that way. I hope, having been a player, I understand the demands and pressures far better than most conductors. I’m definitely on the side of the players and hope that comes through in my rehearsal techniques and performances.

What would you say are your career highlights so far? 

Looking back on it, conducting my own orchestra at the UK Proms in London’s Royal Albert Hall, on television, was possibly a highlight, but I have also performed many times live on worldwide broadcasts and also regularly on national television. It’s important to remember, as a performer, no matter how important the gig, one should always be in “absolute focus-mode” – the music is of paramount importance compared to one’s appreciation of the event.

When did music first feel like a viable career for you?

I knew instantly that I wanted to be on stage – even going to plays as a child, I knew I’d be a performer of some sort. My parents weren’t too sure, of course, but I’d advise all musicians that a career in music isn’t something you should merely think about doing – it has to be unthinkable for you to do anything else. Then, you stand a chance.

Richard Davis. By Andrew Price.

What’s the secret to being a good conductor?

Mahler said there’s no such thing as a good or bad orchestra – only good or bad conductors. I wish more conductors truly believed that. As a player, I witnessed many who were unwittingly disrupting the flow of the music or that “tripped up” players by their gestures, who never seemed to look at their own techniques as a possible reason for those hiccups.

A great conductor can make you and your colleagues reach musical heights you thought were unattainable. Respect for the players is an essential first step. Hard work and being absolutely sure of your interpretation is also vitally important – any doubt will feed through into your body language and may be misinterpreted by the players.

Beyond the interpretation, and all the technical aspects of rehearsals, the most important thing to remember is that the act of performing should be a fun experience – if the players are really enjoying it then, hopefully, the audience will too.

Can you tell us how you feel when you’re conducting an orchestra? Does it feel like a weight of responsibility? 

Preparing music for any performance is a process one never completes – there’s no end to the study. As you open a score, you begin to fall in love with the music and the composer – you see new things every day as the interpretation presents itself to you. Performing a work that you love is a joyful experience and I personally can’t wait to get on the platform.

Nerves can act like a virus, spreading quickly through the all performers, so if I can show that I’m happy to be on stage it can help the players to relax.

I recently had a lovely compliment paid to me from a member of a professional orchestra (name and ensemble withheld). This player said that they all enjoyed working for me because, for once, it seemed that a conductor actually wanted them to play at their best. I know, as a player, that if you’re over-stressed then you can never perform at your highest level.

Can you tell us a little about the work you’ve done for TV and what’s gained/lost in that process compared to live performance?

This is an interesting question. For a live performance, the rehearsing is more critical and you all know there are no second chances. As you perform, you only think of what’s coming next – you forbid yourself to do any musical “post-mortems” as you go along.

But in a recording, as the red light is on, you’re always thinking of how each of the previous phrases could have been improved and mentally bookmarking particular sections to repeat.

During every recording session, it’s necessary to do some complete takes or run-throughs, otherwise the recording can become a little clinical.

Your book Becoming an Orchestral Musician (2004) has been described as “an unbeatable-value master class” and sells globally. How difficult is it to write about performing, given it’s an inherently hands-on skill? 

Becoming an Orchestral Musician was originally intended to be an audition pamphlet as there seemed to be a great divide between what was taught in conservatoires about orchestral playing and what professional musicians actually wanted at auditions.

To see really great young musicians fail to get through the first rounds of auditions because they didn’t understand what was of primary importance was really distressing. So I set out to explain a few things. I wrote for a couple years, interviewed many musicians about their perspectives, and the original Audition pamphlet now sits as the fourth chapter in the book.


Banner image: Richard Davis. By Sav Schulman.