In a statement, the LSO said, “Sir Colin Davis, president of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), has died at the age of 85.” Sir Colin Rex Davis (25 September 1927 – 14 April 2013) was an English conductor best known for his association with the London Symphony Orchestra, having first conducted it in 1959. His repertoire was broad, but among the composers with whom he was particularly associated were Mozart, Berlioz, Elgar, Sibelius, Stravinsky andTippett. “He was the longest-serving principal conductor in the LSO’s history and has been at the head of the LSO family for many years. His musicianship and his humanity have been cherished by musicians and audiences alike.”
The fifth of seven children, he was born in the affluent stockbroker belt of Surrey. But his father was a bank clerk, and the only form of music in the family flat above a shop came from a gramophone which was the young Colin’s solace and delight. In this way he experienced his road to Damascus with a performance of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony which alerted him to what he later called “the power, the tenderness, the beauty, the ferocity of music”. A wealthy great-uncle assisted him to a place at Christ’s Hospital school, West Sussex, and there an older student encouraged him to take up the clarinet.
Although his teachers tried to steer him towards a career in biology or chemistry, subjects in which he excelled, he was determined on a life in music. There were obstacles to his chosen sphere, conducting, since he had not learned the piano, and having gained a clarinet scholarship to the Royal College of Music, London, where he studied with Frederick Thurston, he found himself barred from conducting classes there.
Another standard route to the podium, that of becoming a repetiteur with one of Germany’s many opera companies, would also be closed to him; though looking back in 1991, he had no regrets about his lack of pianistic skill, declaring that “conducting has more to do with singing and breathing than with piano-playing”.
In 1949, after military service, which he fulfilled as a clarinettist with the Household Cavalry, he married the soprano April Cantelo, soon to enjoy a distinguished career of her own, and conducted other graduates of the RCM in the newly formed Kalmar Orchestra, rehearsing in the basement of the Ethical Church in Bayswater. Out of the orchestra came the semi-professional Chelsea Opera Group, which invited him to conduct its performances of Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor and Don Giovanni, an opera which was to remain a constant throughout his life. In Mozart, he later told the New York Times, he found “all those things that helped keep me together … in Mozart you find a fantastic balance between the elements that make up music and make up a human being.”
His own life at this time, however, was far from balanced. He had part-time engagements as a clarinettist at Glyndebourne under Fritz Busch, then Mozart’s greatest champion, and with the New London Chamber Orchestra. But even supplementary jobs conducting local choirs and coaching at Cambridge failed to bring in an income sufficient to support his wife, son and daughter.
His first break came when he was offered the post of assistant conductor at the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in 1957, and two years later Mozart came to the rescue when he took over from an indisposed Otto Klemperer in a concert performance of Don Giovanni at the Royal Festival Hall. Sadler’s Wells Opera, where he had conducted Mozart’s Entführung aus dem Serail, had already offered him the post of chief conductor, and he became the company’s music director in 1961. Stravinsky, his other great love of the late 1950s and early 60s, featured in memorable performances of Oedipus Rex and The Rake’s Progress, and he faced the challenge of Beethoven’s Fidelio for the first time. A personal crisis which precipitated the breakdown of his 15-year marriage, however, led to a request to be released from his five-year contract with the company.
Other possibilities were in the air: influential voices canvassed for him to become the next principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestraand music director of the Royal Opera House. Neither post was forthcoming; doubts were voiced about his stability, and many musicians found him, as he admits he then still was, “a bit hard and tactless”.
Davis finally turned around his mid-life crisis with careful reading of Hermann Broch’s Death of Virgil and Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel; the happiness of his marriage in 1964 to a Persian student, Ashraf Nani – his adored second wife, Shamsi – and appointment to the post of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor in 1967, which he described as “the completion of my education”.
From this point on there emerged a new Colin Davis – less ambitious and self-indulgent, more ready to work alongside his orchestral musicians than to confront them with tactless invective. The BBC post allowed him to choose repertoire in co-operation with the supremely diplomatic controller of music, William Glock, and to venture into such complex new scores as Peter Maxwell Davies’s Worldes Bliss, which he looked back on as the most difficult work he had ever undertaken. He was less comfortable with the patriotic high jinks of the Last Night of the Proms, which he confessed gave off more than a whiff of the first world war antihero Earl Haig.
His career had now taken a decidedly international turn, with chief conductorships in the offing from New York and Boston. He later took up the post of principal guest conductor with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, recording his first and perhaps most keenly articulated Sibelius symphony-cycle there in the 1970s.
Instead, he chose to succeed Georg Solti as music director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. He had already laid down a gauntlet with productions of Berlioz’s Les Troyens in 1969 and two Tippett operas – The Midsummer Marriage and the world premiere of The Knot Garden – in 1970.
Outstanding recordings accompanied all three events, and the Tippett association continued with the heartfelt approval of the composer. Davis and Tippett shared an intellectual curiosity stretching way beyond the bounds of the musical world, and Tippett told Alan Blyth in 1972 that “Colin has an instinctive understanding of what I want without our ever having discussed it. I just feel that as far as interpreting my music is concerned, he’s the tops.”
The relationship with the Royal Opera, perhaps inevitably given the countless sensibilities involved, proved less adulatory in the long term. The introspective Davis was perceived as much less of a theatrical animal than his predecessor, Solti; despite successful advances in his own repertoire, and his insistence on sharing seasons with other top international interpreters – among them Claudio Abbado, Carlos Kleiber, Riccardo Muti, Zubin Mehta, Loren Maazel, Bernard Haitink and Gennadi Rozhdestvensky – he was still more revered abroad, especially in Amsterdam with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, than at home. Friction with the board of directors, responsibility for four unsuccessful new operas and controversial decisions over productions, not least Götz Friedrich’s staging of Wagner’s Ring cycle, which he conducted and eloquently defended throughout the 1970s, contributed to a departure earlier than he would have liked, in 1986, after a 15-year reign that would have been more than enough for many other conductors.
Now Sir Colin – he was knighted in 1980, appointed Companion of Honour in 2002 and awarded the Queen’s Medal for music in 2009 – he continued to live an unostentatious private life divided between his homes in Highgate, north London, and Suffolk, devoted to his wife, the three sons and two daughters by his second marriage and a pet iguana that would terrorise visiting colleagues by landing on them unpredictably.
The world was more than ever at his fingertips. A fruitful reign, from 1983, at the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, which understood his increasingly mellow and expansive manner perfectly, was followed by a principal guest conductorship with one of the most aristocratic of European orchestras, the Dresden Staatskapelle, in 1990.
Yet a new golden age, with never a harsh word between conductor and players, truly began five years later when he accepted the post he had failed to reach back in 1964 – principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. Critics and public were unanimous in acclaiming him the finest interpreter of Berlioz of the age; concert performances of the operas and the pick of the major orchestral works and dramatic cantatas were mostly recorded for posterity (though not the Benvenuto Cellini, perhaps the scintillating gem of the entire series).
While his Bruckner, Dvořák and Elgar symphonies were now magisterial, offering plenty of vitality within broad lines, Davis’s plushly upholstered Sibelius stood in marked contrast to the more volatile, plainer-speaking interpretations of younger conductors. He discovered for himself a British composer whose white-heat inspirations suited him as well as Tippett had done, James MacMillan, and one of his last major undertakings with the LSO was a cycle of Nielsen’s symphonies.
Davis’s commitment to education and fostering the talents of the younger generation was embodied in his 25 years as international chair of orchestral studies at the Royal Academy of Music, which ran parallel to a similar role in Dresden’s Music Conservatory. During his time at the academy, he was equally involved in opera productions, concerts, chamber music and masterclasses.
To the last, Davis was certain of the repertoire which suited him best; the Russians, he declared, smacked too much of the circus, and most of Mahler’s symphonies struck him as overwrought. Not everything he had once conducted with such vivacity aged well; his later Mozart and Richard Strauss at the Royal Opera could feel rather grandiose, in marked contrast to glorious concert performances with the LSO of three long-term favourites, Britten’s Peter Grimes and Verdi’s Falstaff and Otello. Mozart continued to be of the essence: when his wife died in 2010, he carried on with his commitment to a run of performances of Le Nozze di Figaro at the Royal Opera House. “How did he do it?”, asked Guardian critic Tom Service. The answer was simple: the strength comes from the music, and Mozart is “life itself”.
Davis always remained true to a credo of humility, dating back to the turning-point of the mid-1960s, and revering that “something in the air” which was the essence of music. As he put it so eloquently to the writer Helena Matheopoulos: “If people are musical and want to play, they will share this thing with you. I don’t know why or how it happens.”
Davis is survived by his children.