Sir Colin Davis: a conductor without compare

The London Symphony Orchestra's longest-serving conductor has died at the age of 85.

 

Browsing through the obituaries and tributes published today marking the death of the conductor Sir Colin Davis, I came across something I didn’t know about him – despite having wanted to be a conductor from an early age, when he arrived at the Royal College of Music on a scholarship, he was barred from taking conducting classes. Why? Because he didn’t play the piano. The idea that you can be disqualified from learning to be a conductor because you aren’t an accomplished pianist (a not necessarily relevant musical skill) really jarred with me – not least because, having shown a bit of musical promise in other areas, from my early teens I was pushed into regular and gruelling piano lessons to avoid being held back in any potential future musical study, and I hated it. Looking back in 1991, Davis said: “conducting has more to do with singing and breathing than with piano-playing". He was, of course, quite correct.

As Andrew Clark has pointed out in this excellent piece for the FT (£), Davis was a conductor who questioned the maestro’s right to absolute autonomy over the music and musicians. Kept out of the conducting class, he came at the craft from the side – conducting first the Kalmar Orchestra, formed by a group of fellow players, and then the Chelsea Opera Group – and got his big break in 1959 when Otto Klemperer fell ill and Davis conducted Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Royal Festival Hall in his place. Although he was felt to have mellowed in his later years, the Davis of the Fifties and Sixties was supposedly “a bit hard and tactless”, as he put it later on. Perhaps his advancement was slowed by the perception that he was less-than-fun to work with, but as he grew older, he gained a solid reputation for a collaborative style of conducting.

Davis was well-known for his championing of particular composers – Mozart, Berlioz and Britten spring particularly to mind – but it was his recordings of Tippett where I first encountered his lucid, passionate approach to music. During his 15-year stint as musical director at Covent Garden, he put on Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage and ushered through the world premiere of The Knot Garden. Perhaps obsession with Tippett is a peculiarly adolescent habit (I spotted the pianist Stephen Hough admitting to something similar on Twitter earlier today) but in my teens I just couldn’t get enough of Davis’s Tippett recordings. There was something languorous yet vital in the way his interpretations put across the melodic, fugal feel of Tippett’s work – contemporary enough to make a 17 year old brought up on a hard diet of Bach sonatas feel like they’re rebelling, but with a depth of harmony that isn’t entirely alien. I wasn’t alone by any means – Tippett himself recognised Davis’s gift for his music, telling 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."

To date, Davis is the London Symphony Orchestra’s longest-serving conductor, at the helm from 1995 to 2006, and became its president in 2007. As has been widely noted by his obituary writers, he steered the orchestra to one of its most stable and fruitful periods. Even once his own eminence in his field was well established he didn’t lose his desire to bring lesser-known composers to public attention, memorably working with James Macmillan on a number of performances and recordings.

Davis will be remembered as a great musician, to be sure, and a grand maestro of the 20th century, but part of his charm as a personality lay in his honesty and eccentricity. As the Guardian’s tribute notes, he lived with his family and “a pet iguana that would terrorise visiting colleagues by landing on them unpredictably” and the FT points out that as well as playing with his pet he liked to relax by knitting and chopping wood.

In 2007, Davis gave an interview to the BBC in which he touched on the subject of music and death. He said: “Every time you give a concert, time is suspended: you're mastering it; time is not the enemy. It doesn't put off death, unfortunately, but it gives you a very good time while you're still alive." He might be gone, but his music will continue to give us a good time.

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If you’ve never seen Davis in action, it’s worth watching him conducting Yehudi Menuhin and the London Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major in 1962. His facial expressions alone are worth it.

Colin Davis during a performance in 1965. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES
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Why Prince wanted to make his listeners feel inadequate

Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals.

Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, by Ben Greenman
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £17.99

During his mid-Eighties imperial phase, stretching from the eruption of “When Doves Cry” to the corruption of “Alphabet St”, Prince was a global object of desire: hyper-talented, cool, funny and charming. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to have him or be him. Have him or be him, covetousness or envy – those two reactions are more than a little negative. And more than a little negative is how I felt about both Prince and Ben Greenman when I got to the end of Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, a book as cumbersome as its title. Published a year after his death, it didn’t make me hate Prince as much as Blake Bailey’s monumental takedown Cheever: a Life made me despise John Cheever, but it came close.

The Prince we meet in anecdotes and legal depositions from both before and after his imperial phase is cranky, petty-minded and grasping. This may be because Greenman, who contributes to the New Yorker and has assisted George Clinton and Brian Wilson with their memoirs, is a much more entertaining writer when ripping Prince to bits than when attempting to build a shrine from his mortal remains. Here Greenman is, in flat-footed praise mode yet inadvertently dissing his subject: “From Stevie Wonder, he took mastery. From David Bowie, he took mystery. All of these influences were ingested and digested until Prince, nourished, went about making something new.” Follow that metaphor through and Prince’s “something new” can only be faecal.

But here is Greenman criticising the fall-from-grace album Graffiti Bridge. “The only thing holding back these epics from unconditional greatness is their poor aerodynamics,” he writes. “They’re like ­giant whiteboards filled with flow charts and equations: diagrams of how to make a Prince song work at top speed without actually working at top speed.” That simile, of subsonic flying whiteboards, is ridiculous but accurate – and captures something of what Prince is like when he is his diagrammatic rather than his funky self.

There are great insights here. Some are offhand, such as, “What is Purple Rain, the movie, but an argument for collaboration?” Others are more laboured but worthwhile as mini-obituaries: “Prince was a flamboyant star with a penchant for intellectual ­exploration, but he was also a sly comedian, a critic of existing soul music stereotypes, and a massive egomaniac.”

Elsewhere, the prose is pretentious, bathetic and nonsensical in equal measure. Of Prince’s alter ego Camille, ­Greenman writes, “This pitch-shifted version of Prince hovered between male and female and, in the process, cracked open previously conventional issues of power, sexuality, ego and
id.” Clearly, Prince/Camille had no issue with the superego – or, at least, didn’t feel the need to hover and in the process crack it.

By the end, I felt that this book was a fitting monument to Prince: glib and unsatisfying. When I listen to his music, I feel that something is being taken from me rather than given. At best, I end a song such as “Kiss” feeling disburdened, floating, freer; at worst, I feel hungry, swizzed, abused. And I think this is deliberate. Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals. Making them feel inadequate was the whole point.

There is a clip of him performing Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” with three members of the band. Each time the chorus comes up and everyone in the room sings, “I-i am everyday people,” you can see Prince struggling to join in, because he’s thinking, “You may be, but I’m not.”

I don’t doubt that the latter-day Prince could be a magnificent performer. The fewer musicians he had with him, the better he got. Fans left his concerts feeling that they’d been at the greatest gig in their life, but Prince was the inventor of the after-show after-show. For super-fans, there was always another gig at a smaller, more obscure venue, starting at three or five o’clock in the morning. Just when it looked like he could give no more, it turned out – wearyingly – that he was inexhaustible. There was always more of the same. More 15-minute funk jams. More cheeky covers intended to prove that Prince was a more talented musician than the songs’ composers, because he could insert a half-diminished seventh chord where they’d strummed E minor. Worst of all, there were more and more muso excursions into 1970s fusion. It’s a fundamental question: if Prince was such a great musician, why did he play such God-awful jazz?

In the end, as a fan who had adored every­thing he did up to Lovesexy, I became angry with him and stopped listening. So did Greenman: “When I started working on this book, I promised myself that I would listen only to Prince’s music. I had enough to last me months. But about six weeks in, the Prince-only diet started to feel claustrophobic and maybe even a little ghoulish . . .” What Greenman found, I think, is that in Prince’s musical world the space gets perpetually smaller, because ultimately all the singer wants you to concentrate on is his self-aggrandisement. It’s fitting that Prince kept his unreleased recordings in “the vault” – a place for miserly hoarding of surplus value.

The ghoulishness of the Prince diet is that it gives no proper nourishment. It’s there in the lyrics to one of his offhand masterpieces: “Starfish and coffee/Maple syrup and jam/Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine/And a side order of ham”. This isn’t soul food. You’ll be hungry an hour later.

Greenman’s most revealing footnote – about himself and about his subject – concerns another creepy, slave-driving manufacturer of confectionery. “The movie side of Warner Bros had [in the early 1990s] just acquired the rights to remake Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory . . . Prince, I thought, would be perfect for the part . . . I wrote a long letter to Warner making the case but was too shy to send it.”

In this book, that long letter is finally delivered. Prince was a perfect Wonka. 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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