Ivan Davis, a prize-winning classical pianist who was already a national figure when the University of Miami music school hired him in 1966, died Monday night following a stroke.
Davis, who began studying piano with his aunt at 12, was 86 and internationally renowned.
“Ivan Davis was one of the most musical and technically thrilling pianists of his generation” said Shelton Berg, dean of the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami. “So many aspiring pianists used his recording of Liszt’s 2nd Concerto as a model for their own performances.”
Davis, a recipient of New York’s Handel Medal, played with virtually every major orchestra in America and performed countless recitals throughout South Florida.
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Critics often called him peerless. He, in turn, often dismissed critics as “the crickets.” Nevertheless, he regarded the late Dallas Morning News critic John Ardoin as a brother “and the only person in music I’ve known who knew more than I did.”
Among classical music audiences, Davis was also a favorite in England and Australia. He appeared at Italy’s Spoleto Festival and with the National Orchestra of Spain.
“When I arrived at the Frost School in 2007, it was exciting to know that I would be Ivan’s colleague, and it was a joy to get to know him,” Berg said. “I am grateful for the generations of students he taught at our school, and the enduring legacy he gave us.”
Davis remained at UM for 42 years, helping to guide the music program toward national recognition.
“His numerous recordings, national and international appearances with orchestras and as a recitalist, and frequent role as a juror for competitions here and abroad helped the Frost School to establish and maintain its high profile over the years,” said Bill Hipp, dean emeritus of the Frost School.
“There is always the danger of being over-exposed in a city,” Davis told the Miami Herald in 1986, “but I feel very much now that Miami is my hometown and I’m comfortable playing here. I’ve lived in Miami more than I’ve lived anyplace else and really love it.”
Davis retired in October 2008 by closing a Festival Miami concert with a performance of Schumann’s “Kinderszenen.” The sold-out Gusman Concert Hall date was his last public performance.
The show was a fitting summation to an enviable career in the arts. “Ivan had a big recording contract and played all over the world. He was clearly one of the top pianists in America at that time,” UM’s third music dean, the late William Lee, who hired Davis 52 years ago, said in Score magazine in 2008.
After Davis won the Liszt Competition in New York in 1960, famed Russian pianist and composer Vladimir Horowitz invited Davis to dinner and asked him to play the piano. Horowitz, retired at the time, bonded with the younger musician.
Soon after, Horowitz, nearing 60, asked Davis to take him to one of New York’s hot lounges. They wound up chatting on a bench outside O’Henry’s, but when a group of young music fans recognized Davis, and asked for his autograph, the older master was a bit dismayed.
Davis believed this outing nudged Horowitz to resume his career, which the master did in 1962 with a series of acclaimed releases on Columbia Records and a return to the Carnegie Hall stage in 1965. The performances revived Horowitz’s career.
A contemporary of fellow Texan Van Cliburn, Davis was raised in Hobbs, New Mexico, across the border from his birthplace, Electra, Texas. He studied with Sicilian pianist Silvio Scionti at North Texas State University, attended Rome’s L’Accademia di Santa Cecilia on a Fulbright Scholarship to study with Carlo Zecchi, and first visited Miami in 1955, when he won the National Federation of Music Clubs Award.
He made his New York recital debut at Town Hall in 1959. The New York Times’ music critic opined: “This was an unusually exciting debut and it left no doubt that an important American pianist has arrived on the scene.”
By the early 1960s, Davis coached with Horowitz and was touring nationwide, performing alongside Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic and recording for Columbia Records. Through the years, he also recorded for London/Decca and the Miami-based Audiofon label, with producer Julian Kreeger.
In 1966, the year he became an artist-teacher and pianist-in-residence at UM, Davis made his debut in London at Queen Elizabeth Hall. The Guardian wrote: “He brought one back — or forward — to a golden age of pianism.”
Perhaps Miami didn’t enjoy the reputation of New York or London as a breeding ground for classical musicians, but it had other attributes Davis liked. He said he accepted a teaching position at UM because he liked the Florida weather and Miami’s easy airport access.
Decades later, as his own reputation soared to include contemporaries like opera sopranos Maria Callas and Magda Olivero, choreographer/dancer Jerome Robbins and Van Cliburn among his circle of friends and collaborators, he felt he was surrounded by promising talent in his adopted city.
“The talent is not drying up. I graduate lots of pianists every year,” Davis said in a 2001 Herald story.
He advocated for more arts funding. “How will they make a living? Our downfall has always been a lack of arts education in the schools. Everything gets money except the arts.”
Davis felt artists had a responsibility to act as advocates. “I don’t understand the resistance of artists to speak out,” he told the Herald in 1974.
Ivan Davis had the most remarkable ‘touch’ on the keyboard. He made it sound like a string instrument with exquisite coloration. He had a delightful sense of humor and sophisticated vocabulary.
Ross Harbaugh, professor at UM’s Frost School of Music, Bergonzi String Quartet cellist.
When he wasn’t at the keyboard, teaching or advocating, friends and colleagues often found Davis in his lavish kitchen at his Miami home where he regaled pals with stories. He was enthralling, they’d say.
“In Ivan’s many good years, he’d cook an aromatic meal for a table full of friends, draw us into a tale about eating hamburgers on the floor of her Paris apartment with Maria Callas, listen patiently to someone’s complaint about another’s tacky marriage, then counter with the description of his own wedding in Philip Johnson’s Glass House,” said his friend and colleague Frank Cooper, a UM music professor emeritus.
Davis, Cooper added, would “describe being asked by Gian-Carlo Menotti to be Ava Gardner’s ‘date’ at the Spoleto Festival, tolerate an opinion about this pianist’s or that vocalist’s interpretation of something awe-inspiring but insist, after the meal, on playing other recordings to quell the opinion and excite interest in listening to ‘something else even better.’ His flair was unquenchable.”
Fellow musicians say he left a legacy.
“Ivan Davis was one of the very greatest American virtuoso pianists. Those of us fortunate to have heard him live and in recordings marveled at his sensational technique, beautiful tone, and endless amount of colors he drew from the piano,” said Santiago Rodriguez, professor and chair of the UM Frost School’s piano department. “As an educator, he provided guidance and inspiration to many young pianists. He will be dearly missed.”
Davis’ survivors include his daughter Leslie Davis, three grandsons, and wife Betty Lou. There will be no services at Davis’ request.