Peter G. Davis, Music Critic of Wide Knowledge and Wit, Dies at 84

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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, Mr. 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 Mr. 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 the Russian violinist Vladimir Spivakov, an activist protesting the treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union threw a paint bomb at the stage, splattering Mr. Spivakov and his accompanist. Mr. Davis wrote, “Terrorists must be extremely insensitive to music, for tossing paint at a violinist playing Bach’s ‘Chaconne’ is simply poor timing.”

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.

Mr. 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.”

Mr. 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, Mr. 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, Mr. 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,” the 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.”

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