It was with a deep sense of shock and sadness that musicians and music lovers around the world received the news of the death of Sir Colin Davis on 14 April 2013 after a short illness, at the age of 85. The London Symphony Orchestra website reported the news the same evening:
“Sir Colin first conducted the LSO in 1959 and became Principal Conductor in 1995. He was the longest serving Principal Conductor in the LSO’s history and has been at the head of the LSO family for many years. His musicianship and his humanity have been cherished by musicians and audiences alike.
Sir Colin’s role in British musical life was immense. Alongside his commitment to the LSO, he forged special relationships with the Royal Opera House, the BBCSO (BBC Symphony Orchestra), and the English Chamber Orchestra, as well as mentoring many young performers and conductors at the Royal Academy of Music and the Guildhall School.
He was internationally renowned for his interpretations of Mozart, Sibelius and Berlioz, and music lovers across the world have been inspired by his performances and recordings.
He will be remembered with huge affection and admiration by the LSO and our thoughts are with his family at this time.”
Davis was born in Weybridge Surrey to a musical family. He was in his teens when he decided to make music his life. He studied the clarinet with Frederick Thurston at the Royal College of Music, London, but his heart was already set upon conducting.
His first breakthrough came in 1957, when he landed the post of assistant conductor in what is today the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. In two years, he was being hailed in the Observer as “probably the best conductor we have produced since Sir Thomas Beecham.” Bigger appointments followed. He stood in for an indisposed Otto Klemperer in a performance of Don Giovanni in London in 1959. In 1960, he replaced Sir Thomas Beecham in the Magic Flute at Glyndebourne, made his BBC Proms début and was appointed chief conductor of Sadler’s Wells Opera.
In 1970, Davis succeeded Georg Solti as principal conductor at Covent Garden. He was chief conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra from 1983 to 1993. He then became Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra in 1995, and later its President, posts that he held until his demise.
In addition to Mozart, Berlioz and Sibelius, Sir Colin Davis also achieved world renown for his deep insightful interpretation of Elgar, Stravinsky and Tippett.
He had a great wish to visit India and conduct a concert here. The London Symphony Orchestra obliged and scheduled a visit to Mumbai as an additional stop-over during its tour of the Arabian Gulf in 2010. I feel fortunate that I managed to wangle a ticket to their concert where he conducted two of the composers he ‘specialised‘ in and were dear to his heart: Edward Elgar (Enigma Variations) and Hector Berlioz (Symphonie Fantastique).
Sir Davis was married twice. His second wife passed away in 2010. He is survived by five children, one of whom is the conductor Joseph Wolfe, from whom I was privileged to have violin and conducting lessons with him during my years in England. He chose a different surname because he wanted to “create some space to grow and to develop my own identity as a musician.” He is the spitting image of his father, though: I still remember the start I got when I first laid eyes upon him, when he opened his front door to let me in. The same creased smile, the same shock of hair, only jet-black instead of white. It was like going back in time and meeting the young Colin Davis.
Sir Colin Davis’ witty, inspirational quotes are legion and legendary. Here are just a few:
“Maybe the absence of ego is one of the great joys that is available to us: the chance that music gives you to climb out of the prison cell of your ego and be free for an hour and a half.”
“Conducting has more to do with singing and breathing than with piano-playing.”
“Everyone wants immediate success, immediate celebrity, and that doesn’t produce what used to be artists.”
“All the conductor has to do is stand back and try not to get in the way. Mozart is doing all the work.”
“Mozart is expressing something that is more than human.”
“The road to success and the road to failure are almost exactly the same.”
The London Symphony Orchestra website is already inundated with tributes from all over the world, an index of how respected and loved Sir Colin Davis was.
Rest in Peace, dear Maestro!