Peter G. Davis, music critic of wide knowledge and wit, dies at 84

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Peter G. Davis, music critic of wide knowledge and wit, dies at 84
Peter G. Davis on a visit to Sissinghurst Castle Garden, near Cranbrook, England, circa 1990. Davis, who for over 30 years held sway as one of America’s leading classical music critics with crisp, witty prose and an encyclopedic memory of countless performances and performers, died on Feb. 13, 2021. He was 84. Scott Parris via The New York Times.

by Clay Risen

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Peter G. Davis, who for over 30 years held sway as one of America’s leading classical music critics with crisp, witty prose and an encyclopedic memory of countless performances and performers, died on Feb. 13. He was 84.

His death was confirmed by his husband, Scott Parris.

First as a critic at The New York Times and later at New York magazine, Davis wrote precise, sharply opinionated reviews of all forms of classical music, though his great love was opera and the voice, an attachment he developed in his early teens.

He presided over the field during boon years in New York in the 1960s and ’70s, when performances were plentiful and tickets relatively cheap, and when the ups and downs of a performer’s career provided fodder for cocktail parties and after-concert dinners, not to mention the notebooks of writers like Davis, who often delivered five or more reviews a week.

He wrote those reviews with a knowing, deadpan, at times world-weary tone. During a 1976 concert by Russian violinist Vladimir Spivakov, an activist protesting the treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union threw a paint bomb at the stage, splattering Spivakov and his accompanist. Davis wrote, “Terrorists must be extremely insensitive to music, for tossing paint at a violinist playing Bach’s ‘Chaconne’ is simply poor timing.”

He maintained faith in the traditions of classical music not for the sake of perpetuating the past but for their intrinsic power, and he looked askance at those who tried to update them just to be trendy.

In a 1977 review of the Bronx Opera’s staging of “Fra Diavolo,” by 19th-century French composer Daniel Francois Auber, he decried what he saw as a “refusal to believe in the piece by treating it as an embarrassment, a work that needs a maximum of directorial gimmicks if the audience is to remain interested.”

He could be equally dismissive of new music and composers who he thought were overhyped. Minimalist composer Philip Glass and Beverly Sills (early on “a dependable, hardworking but not especially remarkable soprano” who became a star, he felt, only after her talents had peaked) were regular targets.

In a review of a performance of Glass’ work at Carnegie Hall in 2002, he wrote, “It was pretty much business as usual: the same simple-minded syncopations and jigging ostinatos, the same inane little tunes on their way to nowhere, the same clumsily managed orchestral climaxes.”

Which is not to say that Davis was a reactionary — he championed young composers and upstart regional opera companies. His great strength as a critic was his pragmatism, his commitment to assess the performance in front of him on its own terms while casting a skeptical eye at gimmickry.

“He was a connoisseur of vocal music of unimpeachable authority,” said Justin Davidson, a former classical music critic at Newsday who now writes about classical music and architecture for New York magazine. “He had a sense that the things he cared about mattered, that they were not niche, not just entertainment, but that they cut to the heart of what American culture was.”

Peter Graffam Davis was born on March 3, 1936, in Concord, Massachusetts, outside 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 homemaker.

Parris, whom he married in 2009, is his only immediate survivor.

Davis fell in love with opera as a teenager, building a record collection at home and attending performances in Boston. During the months before his junior year at Harvard, he took a tour of Europe’s summer music festivals — Strauss in Munich, Mozart in Salzburg, Wagner in Bayreuth.

He encountered European opera at a hinge point. It was still defined by long-standing traditions and had yet to fully emerge from the destruction of World War II, but poking out of the wreckage was a new generation of performers: French soprano Régine Crespin, Austrian soprano Leonie Rysanek, Italian tenors Franco Corelli and Giuseppe di Stefano. Davis got to see them up close.

He graduated from Harvard in 1958 with a bachelor’s degree in music. After spending a year at a conservatory in Stuttgart, Germany, he moved to New York to complete a master’s degree in composition at Columbia University.

Davis wrote a number of musical works of his own in the early 1960s, including an opera, “Zoe,” and a pair of Gilbert and Sullivan-esque operettas. But he decided that his future lay not in writing music but in writing about it. He became the classical music editor for both High Fidelity and Musical America magazines, as well as the New York music correspondent for The Times of London.

He began writing freelance articles for The New York Times in 1967, and in 1974 was hired as the Sunday music editor, a job that allowed him to supplement his near-daily output of reviews — whether of recordings, concerts or innumerable debut recitals — with articles he commissioned from other writers. “He had a superb memory,” said Alex Ross, the classical music critic for The New Yorker. “Anything you threw at him, he was able to speak about precisely and intelligently.”

Davis moved to New York magazine in 1981. There he could pick and choose his reviews as well as occasionally stand back to survey the classical music landscape.

Increasingly, he didn’t like what he saw.

As early as 1980, Davis was lamenting the future of opera singing, blaming an emphasis on “pleasing appearance and facile adaptability” over talent and hard work and a star system that pushed promising but immature vocalists past their physical limits.

The diminished position of classical music in American culture that he documented did not spare critics, and in 2007 New York magazine let him go. He went back to freelancing for The Times and wrote regularly for Opera News and Musical America.

For all his thousands of reviews, Davis seemed most proud of his book “The American Opera Singer” (1997), an exhaustive, exhilarating and often withering history in which he praised the versatility of contemporary American performers while taking many of them to task for being superficial workhorses.

“I can’t think of a music critic who cares more deeply about the state of opera in America,” critic Terry Teachout wrote in his review of the book for The Times. “Anyone who wants to know what is wrong with American singing will find the answers here.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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