Northwestern University Professor Emeritus Laurence Davis (1929-2015), a professional pianist-accompanist, longtime Bienen School of Music educator and former associate conductor/principal coach-accompanist for Lyric Opera of Chicago, died April 23, in Evanston, following a brief illness. He was 86.
A native Australian, Davis received numerous musical prizes as a young pianist, including Sydney’s Daily Telegraph piano competition, at the age of 17. Two years later, he was awarded First Prize at Australia’s most prestigious music contest, the Australian Broadcast Commission’s Concerto and Vocal Competition.
“Laurence was an impeccable pianist who brought life and beauty to everything he played -- from a Mozart sonata to a Puccini aria,” said Marcia Bosits, associate professor of piano and director of piano pedagogy at the Bienen School.
Davis’ professional performance career centered on the accompaniment of both vocal and instrumental soloists, including Australian dramatic coloratura Dame Joan Sutherland, German lyric mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig and Australian lyric bass-baritone Walter Berry.
Davis and Sutherland were fellow students at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and they traveled together by sea to London to further their studies at the Royal College of Music. Davis later journeyed to Vienna in the early 1950s to study at the Akademie für Musik. During this time, he was a student of some of the most distinguished piano teachers of the day, including Ignaz Friedman, Bruno Seidlhofer and Franz Reizenstein.
As a solo pianist, Davis won four of the world’s most prestigious music competitions in Geneva, Brussels, Munich and Paris. During his career, he often performed in many chamber music ensembles, making frequent appearances at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall and on WFMT, Chicago’s classical and fine arts music station.
In addition to concert appearances in the United States and Canada, Davis also performed, lectured and led master classes around the world, including Japan, Mexico, Australia, Cuba, South America and the Caribbean.
During the six years he lived in Cuba, he accompanied distinguished visiting European musicians, including the legendary French cellist Pierre Fournier. After moving to the U.S., he was appointed as assistant conductor to the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1962, a position that he held for 18 years.
Davis, a professor of piano, joined the Bienen School faculty in 1965. He taught classes in accompanying and interpretation of vocal repertoire to graduate and undergraduate students. He was fluent in English, Spanish, German, French and Italian, which proved invaluable in his work as a coach to operatic vocalists.
In 1992, he became the piano coordinator of Northwestern University’s summer National High School Music Institute, teaching accompaniment and piano. During the summers of 1994 and 1995, he was invited to teach and coach voice-piano and instrumental piano repertoire in Japan at the Showa College of Music in Tokyo.
“Professor Davis served on the piano faculty for 34 years, however, his influence extended beyond the piano program,” said Toni-Marie Montgomery, dean of the Bienen School of Music. “Professor Davis influenced the lives of hundreds of students through his involvement in chamber, vocal, wind and string music. Laurence was an exceptional musician who contributed significantly to the reputation of the Bienen School of Music.”
Following his retirement from Northwestern’s School of Music in 1998, he was the manager and designer of the University’s Study Abroad program in Thailand for eight years. Based in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, it gave students the opportunity to visit Thailand to study Buddhism and Thai culture, as well as sociological and anthropological perspectives on Thailand.
Davis spent several months each year living in Pattaya, a town on Thailand’s eastern Gulf coast. He performed with many visiting musicians, notably at the series of classical concerts at Ben’s Theater in Jomtien. Davis also performed at Mahidol University School of Music and participated regularly in Chulalongkorn University’s Summer School Writing Seminar initially held on Koh Si Chang, a small island situated in the Gulf of Thailand.
Many of his former Bienen School colleagues and students are deeply saddened by his loss.
Soprano Pamela Hinchman, a Bienen School associate professor of voice, who worked with Davis and toured Thailand with him, shared some of the fondest memories of her former colleague.
“Laurence was such a joyful person who always looked for the silver lining in everything,” Hinchman said. “He loved performing and sharing his gifts with audiences, even rehearsing. Beloved by all, he had a boyish charm that endured until the end of his life. He saw the world from a perspective of possibility rather than limitation. He was contagious in his enthusiasm!”
“Laurence was a valued member of the piano faculty,” said James Giles, associate professor of music performance and coordinator of the Bienen School’s piano program. “We will miss his presence at many of our piano events and school competitions. He was a passionate musician and dedicated mentor who cared deeply about the piano program at Northwestern.”
Following his retirement from the Bienen School, Davis continued his commitment to the School through his generous support as a member of the Lutkin Society as well as through his philanthropic plans for Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music. He gave richly and deeply of his time and resources to the University and did so for many years through multiple forms of giving, including current use and planned giving methods. He provided generous support -- both endowed and non-endowed -- to the Bienen School, the piano program and the Music Library.
“Laurence was sought after to collaborate with many of the world's top vocalists and instrumentalists. However, his commitment to the School of Music and his students remained his top priority. He could be heard many evenings practicing and rehearsing on the fourth floor of the Bienen School, but still found the time to enthusiastically attend almost every recital and performance by his colleagues and students -- and continued to do so well into his retirement years,” added Marcia Bosits.
Davis was the son of Lewis and Sadie Zines Davis. He is survived by one brother, Winston Davis, of Melbourne, Australia, by his Thai companion and friend Anan Pomthong, and by many of his devoted students, colleagues and friends here and around the world.