15 April 2013
Colin Davis, 85, British Conductor Who Made Specialties of Mozart and Berlioz, Has Died
Weybridge, England, September 25, 1927 — London, England, April 14, 2013
"Every piece of music is a rehearsal of one's own life," conductor Colin Davis mused to a London Times interviewer in 2007, the year he turned eighty. "It comes out of nothing and disappears into nothing."
Davis, who has died at age eighty-five, was indulging in a rare moment of introspection, perhaps giving a clue to the almost mystical intensity that marked his interpretations at the end, especially when addressing the composers with whom he was most closely identified — Mozart, Berlioz, Sibelius, Elgar, Stravinsky and Tippett. That quickening of spirit late in life only enhanced the appeal of a conductor long admired for his sensible let's-get-on-with-it style of music-making, in which clarity, balance, geniality and respect for the musical letter took precedence over personal quirks and podium flamboyance.
That winning combination, in addition to a talent for administration, placed Davis at the helm of many of Britain's most prominent musical institutions over a fifty-year period — the Sadler's Wells Opera (1960–65), the BBC Symphony Orchestra (1967–71), the Royal Opera House Covent Garden (1971–87) and the London Symphony Orchestra (1995–2006). His many global appointments included principal conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (1983–93) and principal guest conductor of the Boston Symphony (1972–84), as well as notable appearances at the Metropolitan Opera, where he made his debut conducting Peter Grimes in 1967, later presiding over Berg's Wozzeck (1969) and Debussy's Pelléas et Melisande (1972). He was knighted in 1980 and appointed Companion of Honour in 2001.
Davis's early career did not evolve as smoothly and inevitably as it might seem from a casual glance at the facts. As a young conductor, he was appreciated for achieving imposing musical results, but he was also noted for impatience, irascibility and tactlessness that led to rows within the ranks right through his years as music director at Covent Garden. Some colleagues traced his early fractiousness back to his days at the Royal Academy of Music, where he studied clarinet but was banned from conducting classes due to a lack of piano training.
Any insecurities that were due to that situation were soon resolved, and a succession of high-profile guest engagements during the 1950s made him a familiar figure in British musical circles. Then, in 1959, came the proverbial lucky break — deputizing for Otto Klemperer at a gala concert performance of Don Giovanni starring Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Joan Sutherland — and Davis quickly found himself one of England's most in-demand young conductors. In those days, recordings also played a crucial role in building a musician's career at home and abroad, and Davis's rapidly growing discography made him one of the most prolific and high-profile recording conductors of the long-playing era.
Although Davis's repertory in concert and opera was extensive and stylistically diverse, he had his specialties, perhaps Berlioz above all. That composer was still undervalued and underperformed when Davis began a project to record the major works for Philips in the 1960s. The most important release was surely the first-ever complete recording of Berlioz's operatic epic Les Troyens in 1969, a performance that revealed the work's stature in a unique blend of that music's classical breadth and romantic power. The composer's definitive biographer, David Cairns, credits Davis as a significant force in winning Berlioz's repertory status through his ability to reveal these once problematical scores "as coherent structures, to make clear how they were organized, melodically and harmonically. His interpretations were vital in persuading conservative opinion that Berlioz's music worked."
Although he led both of England's major opera companies at different points in his life, Davis seemed more comfortable in the less rough-and-tumble concert milieu. His years at Covent Garden were not entirely happy — he even booed back at the audience after a poorly received new production of Tannhäuser — and he never seemed quite at home in the basic Puccini, Wagner and Verdi repertory. Still, in the right opera and with a sympathetic cast at his disposal, he could deliver electrifying results. Those lucky enough to have been there still marvel over Tyrone Guthrie's 1967 Met production of Peter Grimes with Jon Vickers. It was a gripping interpretation that had seasoned into an even more memorable experience when Davis led a searing concert performance in New York with the London Symphony Orchestra in 2004.
Davis's first marriage, to soprano April Cantelo, ended in 1964 when the conductor fell in love with Ashraf Naini, the Iranian au pair hired to tend the couple's two children. The outcome of this affair was a long, happy second marriage, the arrival of five additional children, and as much domestic contentment as a busy international conductor can ever expect to have. Lady Davis died in 2010.
Davis's principal nonmusical hobby seems to have been a passion for knitting garments for his family, pullover sweaters for the boys and floral jumpers for the girls. That, and being named Pipe Smoker of the Year in 1996, more or less covers the known intimate details of a musician who never cared to talk about himself and preferred to remain a very private person. His verbal reticence hardly carried over to his music-making. While listening to Colin Davis conduct his favorite scores, audiences invariably sensed that the man behind the music had experienced a life fully lived.
PETER G. DAVIS
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