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.
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.