British Conductor, Sir Colin Davis (1927-2013)

April 16, 2013, 3:01 PM · The music community in Britain and all over the world is celebrating the life of conductor Sir Colin Davis, who died Sunday at the age of 85.

Davis was Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra from 1995 to 2006 -- the longest-serving conductor in the LSO's history -- and held the titles President of the London Symphony Orchestra and Honorary Conductor of the Dresden Staatskapelle at the time of his death. He also was music director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, from 1971 to 1986; and music director of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra from 1983 to 1992. He was knighted in 1980.

For a flavor of his legacy, scroll through the memorial page on the London Symphony Orchestra website, where more than 400 messages of condolence, poetry, remembrances and personal thanks have been posted, including many by recognizable soloists, orchestra members and singers from all over the world who worked with him. (And the posts are in a number of languages!) The Guardian also has compiled remembrances from famous conductors, musicians and administrators.

Sir Colin Davis
Photo by Keith Saunders, courtesy London Symphony Orchestra

As a teenager at Christ's Hospital School in West Sussex, Davis learned to play the clarinet. An obituary by the BBC quotes Davis, describing hearing a recording of a Beethoven Symphony for the first time during those days: "It was a revelation…I had never heard so much energy concentrated into half an hour. I wanted to be a musician and I wanted to be a conductor. It was the most irrational decision that I have ever made."

Especially since he didn't play the piano, having grown up in a home without one. In fact, his lack of piano skills kept him out of the conducting program at Royal College of Music, where he studied clarinet instead.

Nonetheless, he was conducting by the time he was 30 -- a rather young and firey personality conducting musicians older than he was -- and often times clashing with them. It was during these days that he was considered, but actually rejected for posts as chief conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Royal Opera House, according to National Public Radio's obituary. If his professional life was rocky during those days, so was his personal life; his first marriage ended in the 1960s, when he left his wife and married the family's former au pair, with whom he later had five children -- and a long second marriage.

He served a tenure with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, beginning in 1971, and by the time he took the helm with the LSO in 1995, he was a widely respected maestro, who led the organization through a series of successes, including international tours, Grammy awards and explorations of Mozart, Berlioz and Sibelius. Davis also was principal guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic from 1998 to 2003.

He also enjoyed pipe smoking, and knitting!

I leave you with a few comments to ponder, taken from the London Symphony Orchestra Sir Colin Davis memorial web page:

From Rod Stafford, LSO Friend: "With the sad, sad news of Sir Colin's passing the world is a lesser place for we have lost not only one of the greatest of all conductors, but also a quite exceptional person. I send my sincere condolences to his immediate family - and to his wider family of countless musicians and music lovers whose lives have been enriched by Sir Colin.

For more than 50 years I have marveled at the integrity, the humanity and the great sense of love for the music that so characterised his performances. His breadth was enormous: although his Berlioz, Mozart and Sibelius were incomparable, his unique wisdom and authority also gave us magnificent readings of much of the concert and operatic repertoires.

I was fortunate to hear him conduct many orchestras on hundreds of different occasions. He inspired many to play better than they believed possible, and the unique and wondrous collaboration with his beloved LSO gave the world one of the greatest of all conductor / orchestra partnerships. His memory will burn bright forever with his gift to us of an enormous recorded legacy to remind us always of his music making. Farewell, Sir Colin, and thank you…"

From David Lawrence: "What a privilege it was to have met and studied with Sir Colin at the Royal Academy of Music. The first thing he taught us was that none of us should worry, since no-one starts conducting properly until they are 60. He taught us passionately that it is no good trying to be a conductor in front of an orchestra, that what is important is to stand there and be a musician. His passing is deeply sad. He takes with him an unfathomable understanding of music, musicians and humanity, but through the endless generosity of his experience, his life and legacy will live on through us all."

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Interview from 2012: Sir Colin Davis and Nikolaj Znaider

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More links:

New York Times obituary

The Telegraph obituary

Channel 4 news tribute

Colin Davis: a life in pictures (on the LSO's Pinterest page)


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