Peter G. Davis, Music Critic of Wide Knowledge and Wit, Dies at 84
Peter G. Davis, who was considered one of the leading critics of American classical music for over 30 years with crisp, witty prose and an encyclopedic memory of countless performances and performers, died on February 13th. He was 84 years old.
His death was confirmed by his husband, Scott Parris.
First as a critic for the New York Times and later for New York Magazine, Mr. Davis wrote precise, astute reviews of all forms of classical music, though his great love was opera and the voice, a bond he developed in his early teenage years .
He presided over the field during New York’s blessing years of the 1960s and 1970s, when gigs were plentiful, tickets were relatively cheap, and when the ups and downs of a performer’s career were the fodder for cocktail parties and post-concert dinners to mention the notebooks of writers like Mr. Davis, which often got five or more reviews a week.
He wrote these reviews with a knowing, dead, sometimes world-weary tone. During a concert by Russian violinist Vladimir Spivakov in 1976, an activist protesting the treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union threw a paint bomb on the stage and splashed Mr. Spivakov and his companion. Mr Davis wrote, “Terrorists need to be extremely insensitive to music because throwing color to a violinist playing Bach’s ‘Chaconne’ is simply bad timing.”
He held onto the traditions of classical music not to keep the past alive but to keep its inner strength, and looked askance at those who tried to update it just to be trendy.
In a nineteenth-century review by French composer Daniel Francois Auber of the Bronx Opera’s 1977 production of Fra Diavolo, he condemned what he saw as “a refusal to believe in the piece by doing it treated as an embarrassment, a work that needs a maximum of directing gimmicks if the audience is to stay interested. “
He might equally disapprove of new music and composers whom he thought were overly hyped. Minimalist composers Philip Glass and Beverly Sills (early “a reliable, hardworking, but not particularly notable soprano” who only became a star after her talents peaked) were regular targets.
Looking back at a performance of Mr. Glass’s work at Carnegie Hall in 2002, he wrote, “It was pretty much the same as usual: the same silly syncopation and jigging ostinatas, the same crazy little tunes on their way to nowhere. the same awkward orchestral climaxes. “
That’s not to say that Mr. Davis was a reactionary – he advocated for young composers and emerging regional opera companies. His great strength as a critic was his pragmatism, his commitment to assessing the performance before him on his own terms and at the same time keeping a skeptical eye on gimmicks.
“He was a vocalist with unquestionable authority,” said Justin Davidson, a former Newsday classical music critic who now writes on classical music and architecture for New York magazine. “He felt that the things that were important to him were important, that they weren’t a niche, not just entertainment, but that they were at the heart of American culture.”
Peter Graffam Davis was born on March 3, 1936 in Concord, Massachusetts, outside of Boston, and grew up in nearby Lincoln. His father, E. Russell Davis, was a vice president at the Bank of Boston. His mother Susan (Graffam) Davis was a housewife.
Mr. Parris, whom he married in 2009, is his only immediate survivor.
Mr. Davis fell in love with the opera as a teenager, built a record collection at home, and attended performances in Boston. In the months leading up to his junior year at Harvard, he toured European summer music festivals – Strauss in Munich, Mozart in Salzburg, Wagner in Bayreuth.
He encountered European opera at a hinge point. It was still shaped by longstanding traditions and had yet to emerge fully from the destruction of World War II, but a new generation of performers emerged from the rubble: the French soprano Régine Crespin, the Austrian soprano Leonie Rysanek, the Italian tenor Franco Corelli and Giuseppe di Stefano. Mr. Davis needed to see her up close.
He graduated from Harvard in 1958 with a bachelor’s degree in music. After spending a year at a Stuttgart Conservatory, he moved to New York to do a Masters in Composition from Columbia University.
Mr. Davis wrote a number of his own musical works in the early 1960s, including the opera “Zoe” and two operettas in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan. But he decided that his future was not to write music, but to write about it. He has become a classical music editor for both High Fidelity and Musical America magazines and a New York music correspondent for The Times of London.
He began writing freelance articles for the New York Times in 1967 and was hired as Sunday’s music editor in 1974, a job that enabled him to add articles to his almost daily edition of reviews – whether it be recordings, concerts, or countless debut evenings which he commissioned from other authors. “He had a great memory,” said Alex Ross, the classical music critic for The New Yorker. “Everything you threw at him he could discuss precisely and intelligently.”
Mr. Davis moved to New York Magazine in 1981. There he could select his reviews and occasionally step back to survey the classical music landscape.
Increasingly, he didn’t like what he saw.
As early as 1980, Mr. Davis lamented the future of opera singing, blaming talent and hard work as well as a star system that pushed promising but immature singers to their physical limits for “good looks and easy adaptability.”
The diminished position of classical music in American culture he documented spared no critics, and in 2007 New York magazine let him go. He returned to freelance work for The Times, writing regularly for Opera News and Musical America.
Despite all of his thousands of reviews, Mr. Davis seemed most proud of his 1997 book, The American Opera Singer, an exhaustive, exciting, and often withered story in which he praised the versatility of contemporary American artists while recording many of them Task of being superficial workhorses.
“I can’t think of a music critic who cares more about the state of opera in America,” wrote critic Terry Teachout in his review of the book for The Times. “If you want to know what’s wrong with American singing, you’ll find the answers here.”