The doyen of British orchestral players and classical audiences, and a totem figure revered by many students and practitioners of his craft, the conductor Sir Colin Davis has died at the age of 85 following a period of illness.
Most recently remembered for his long partnership with the London Symphony Orchestra (as Principal Conductor from 1995, and then as their President from 2007), Sir Colin was also Honorary Conductor of the Dresden Staatskapelle.
Having struggled in his twenties as a freelance conductor (being shunned for his inability to play the piano or speak Italian, neither of which seemed to hinder him in later life) Davis was first appointed as Assistant Conductor to the BBC Scottish Orchestra (now the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra). He came to prominence in 1959-60, deputising in opera performances for two giants of that era, Otto Klemperer and Sir Thomas Beecham.
By stepping in for Klemperer, Davis also made his debut with the LSO, with whom he felt a certain amount of friction at that early stage of his career, despite conducting them on a world tour in 1964. In a BBC interview (2007) he explained that “I was a young man and they were older, and I didn’t know much about their profession. And I think they were rather resentful. If you’re overly enthusiastic about music, or if you were then, they were very cynical about it, and I don’t think I handled it very well. But I survived.”
Besides merely surviving, Davis went on to take up posts at Sadler’s Wells (later English National Opera) from 1961, the BBC Symphony Orchestra (1967-71), Royal Opera House (1970-85) and Bavarian State Radio Orchestra (1985-95) before returning to the LSO as Principal Conductor.
Most renowned for his championing of Berlioz, he performed all of the composer’s major works in an aptly named Berlioz Odyssey in 1999-2000, of which many were recorded for release on the LSO Live in-house label. Sibelius was another composer to whom he continually returned, finding that over time “it [the music] grows in intensity and you find out more and more meaning in what happens, why it happens and where it happens” (Financial Times, 2012).
Besides these major inspirations, he revelled in the works of British composers such as Elgar, Walton, Britten and Tippett, and was equally adept at bringing light and warmth to the music of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Dvořák.
Such light and warmth surely stemmed from his manner with the stick, which was always very relaxed, providing just what the players needed at the right moment. He could also ratchet up the tension when required, throwing himself bodily into the beat – in an LSO Discovery masterclass, he described the stick as being like “a paintbrush, but you can use it as a sword if you have to”. Such a vivid imagination surely also played a part in the committed and dramatic performances he could coax from his players, whether they be seasoned professionals or the eager National Youth Orchestra, with whom he delivered a white-hot rendition of Tchaikovsky’s F Minor Symphony (No. 4) at their 2011 Proms performance.
Knighted in 1980, Sir Colin Davis had previously been made a CBE (1965), and was named Companion of Honour in 2001. He also received international honours from Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, and Italy.
Sir Colin Davis died in London on Sunday, April 14th. He was born in Weybridge, Surrey in 1927.