Obituary: David Kenneth Davies / Celebrated Welsh tenor, physicist

Sept. 5, 1935 - March 21, 2013

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Ken Davies, a Welsh tenor and physicist who spent a half-century in the celebrated Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, died Thursday from complications of a stroke. He was 77.

Wales is a singing nation, with festivals and competitions called eisteddfods that go back to the 12th century. Mr. Davies brought a piece of that tradition with him when he immigrated to Pittsburgh in the 1960s. He was "the epitome of the Welsh tenor -- the sound, the zeal for singing was just infectious," said the director emeritus of the choir, Robert Page.

David Kenneth Davies was born in Ammanford, Wales, but was with his family in London a few years later during the start of World War II, whereupon he was sent back to Wales to live with his grandparents. He attended the University of Wales and graduated with bachelor and doctorate degrees in physics.

He moved to Pittsburgh in 1962 to work for the Westinghouse Research and Development Center as an atomic and molecular physicist, where he worked on projects predicting electron behavior, moving on later to microwaves and fiber optics. He was awarded the George Westinghouse Signature Award of Excellence in May 1989, and retired five years later.

Mr. Davies grew up attending a church where congregants sang in four-part harmony. On his arrival to the States he also joined the Mendelssohn Choir, the internationally known choral group founded in 1908 that works regularly with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

He was among the longest-tenured members of the troupe, in spite of the fact that his home tongue does not always fall softly on American ears. While a veteran of the Mendelssohn Choir, Mr. Davies still had to regularly re-audition like other members of the choir and sometimes did so in Welsh.

"It's the most awful language. Nothing looks like it sounds. It's worse than Hungarian," laughed Mr. Page, who is now the Paul Mellon professor of Music in the College of Fine Arts at Carnegie Mellon University. "Ken made it sound like heaven -- like vocal chocolate mousse. The voice was just beautiful. It wasn't pretty -- it was beautiful."

He sang with the choir for 50 years, often taking solos with the orchestra and the River City Brass Band. He also worked with the Pittsburgh Savoyards, a semiprofessional group that performs Gilbert & Sullivan comic operas, and for the last 20 years was a soloist at functions for the St. David's Society, a Welsh heritage group. The society helped open the Welsh Nationality Room at Pitt's Cathedral of Learning in 2008.

Mr. Davies was a soloist at Fox Chapel Episcopal Church for 26 years and with the Shadyside Presbyterian Church choir for six years.

His last re-audition with the Mendelssohn Choir was in the last six months. Instead of singing an aria, he chose a Welsh art song, music director Betsy Burleigh said.

"He sounded as good when he did his audition this year as most men half his age," she said. "He was the consummate musician and such a contributor to the organization. He was one of the musical -- and almost in some way spiritual -- centers of the Mendelssohn."

He is survived by his wife, Margaret of Churchill; sons William of Mt. Lebanon and Gareth of Los Angeles; and a sister, Pamela Moore of Royston, England.

A memorial service will be held at Shadyside Church at a later date.

Memorial contributions can be made to the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, 600 Penn Ave., Pittsburgh 15222 or to the St. David's Society of Pittsburgh, c/o Jack Owen, 310 Grant Street, Suite 1030, Pittsburgh 15219.

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Tim McNulty: or 412-263-1581.


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