Commissioned by the BBC

  • 2+afl.3.1+cl+bcl(tsx).2+cbn/43(in C)31/timp.5perc/hp.cel(ekbd,pf)/bjo/str
  • 15 min

Programme Note

In spite of his early studies at Princeton and his frequent invocation of jazz, nothing in Davies's music so far has evoked the enormous - and enormously affectionate - relish he shows here for the great American experience at its most absurd. 'Mavis' is none other than the composer in the form he found himself computer-listed at a Las Vegas hotel while on tour there with the BBC Philharmonic. Here she has an identity all her own, her theme first heard in sentimentally dreamy fashion on solo violin: a connection ritornello, as it turns out, between adventures in a variation form which keeps mere pastiche at bay. The (over) bright lights of the desert Babylon tempt the composer to his most glittering colours, involving a large percussion section and some incandescent orchestral effects, but it is the sounds of big-band and big-country America which he is most intent on evoking, featuring snapshots of a garish gambling hall, a chapel on the 'Strip', the Liberace museum, city lights seen from the desert and - in an exuberant finale - Las Vegas's synthetic volcano in full eruption, much to Mavis's delight.

Composer's Note
In 1995 the BBC Philharmonic toured the United States, performing under the batons of Yan Pascal Tortelier and myself for four weeks, from California across the whole country to Boston, New York and Washington. One of the most unforgettable stops was at Las Vegas, that most unreal synthetic city in the middle of a desert, devoted to gambling, quick weddings and the cult of kitsch so tacky as to be a source of wonder and inspiration.

While I was in Las Vegas, the following article appeared in the London Independent newspaper. '

My attempts to contact Sir Peter Maxwell Davies last week during his 15-date, coast-to-coast US tour with the BBC Philharmonic proved unexpectedly problematic. I rang the Flamingo Hilton, Las Vegas, at 9am US time, by arrangement, and asked to be connected to the composer's room. "I'm sorry," replied the receptionist, "I just lurve your British accent, but could you just repeat the name more slowly, please." I repeated it. "Davis? How do you spell that, please? Oh, Day-vees." Short pause. "I'm sorry, we have no Mr. Day-vees registered."

I suggested we try Maxwell. Then Peter. Then Sir. "I'm sorry, What's 'sir'". "It means he's a knight of the realm. He's a famous British composer, he's giving a concert in Las Vegas tonight and he's meant to be staying at the Flamingo Hilton."

"I'm sorry, but if he's a famous British composer, what's he doing staying at the Flamingo? No one stays at the Flamingo if they can afford to stay at the Las Vegas Hilton. Shall I transfer you there?" She does. I repeat the routine. Same result.

Forty minutes of to-ing and fro-ing between the composer's British and American press agents solved the mystery. Maxwell Davies had been in the Flamingo all along registered as Mavis. Guess they had some problem with his accent.'

It is easy to understand how my name 'Maxwell Davies' could, in the USA, be contracted to 'Mavis' for ease of computerized registration: I immediately imagined Mavis having wonderful adventures in the glitzy environment of Las Vegas.

Although in effect this work could be regarded as a concert overture, it is strictly a theme with variations. At the outset, we hear Mavis's theme on solo violin, and are immediately transported to the gambling hall of a large hotel - always lit by harsh electric light, windowless, disorientating, with the C major (and inexplicably, the odd D flat) of the sputtering gambling-machine filling the air. Mavis makes her entrance - I imagine her all outrageous flounces and hip-jerks, her generous ball-gown streaming, descending a magnificent (pink!) curved staircase into the gambling area.

We move out into the street - the 'Strip' - to hear music issuing from a club, a wedding chapel, and an Elvis shrine. There is a visit to Caesar's Palace, where a huge central fountain, bathed in violet-sweet light, boasts not only magnificent water displays but moving Classical statues which intone platitudes with Shakespearean accents. We visit the Liberace Museum, with its displays of impossibly glamorous costumes, cars and grand pianos, and look at the city skyline glowering and twinkling, seen from the desert at night - an oddly disorientating experience. Finally, we watch the 'volcano' erupt - all synthetic geysers and controlled explosions of gas, with an expensive light show, and loudspeakers relaying suitable rumblings and bangs - with the 'Mavis' theme finally triumphant through it all.

The work is dedicated to Mary Jo Connealy, of Columbia Artists Management Inc, New York, who did so much to make our American tour possible. She accompanied us throughout, with extreme grace, really practical help and encouragement.


Mavis in Las Vegas




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