Sir Colin Davis: A True Giant in Music

By James Jacobs

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Sir Collin Davis (Photo: Alberto Venzago)

That's another game which music has, between time and space...Every time you play a piece of music you're rehearsing your own life...there's a beginning, a middle, a double bar when you're top cat... and then death puts his hand on your shoulder.
 
Fresh off his 80th birthday, Sir Colin Davis made those remarks in an interview with WNYC's John Schaefer on October 17, 2007. The great maestro was in New York to conduct an all-Mozart program with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus at Avery Fisher Hall, the centerpiece of which was a performance of one of his signature pieces: Mozart's Requiem.  
 
The evening was all about Sir Colin, to the extent that at intermission a huge cake was rolled out on the Avery Fisher stage and the entire audience sang "Happy Birthday" to him.   After the concert I was in the Green Room, and at one point I found myself next to "Colin," as everyone there called him. My work (a broadcast production assistant for the radio), and even my name were unknown to him, but it didn't seem to matter.  Nevertheless, assuming that the last thing Sir Colin Davis needed was to have to engage in banter with yet another wide-eyed admirer, I kept silent and tried to gracefully negotiate my way back into the crowd.  
 
But then, unprompted, Colin struck up a conversation with anonymous production assistant.   A good half hour had passed since he had conducted the final notes of his umpteenth performance of the Requiem,  but the conductor was still very much in the world of Mozart's last work.  Sir Colin mentioned that the work was getting more frightening to him, more devastating, and he particularly seemed to be taken with that moment at the end of the Confutatis section. Davis then proceeded to guide me through the entire movement, describing its harmonic structure and how Mozart used it to underscore the text, and how it has parallels in the other sections of the work. Remember, this was his American birthday party in Lincoln Center,  and he had already earned his keep by conducting his concert, and by all rights he should by this time be indulging his Dionysian appetites. Instead, he was discussing Mozart with a total stranger. 
 
But that's entirely who this man was: an incredibly generous soul who was in it for the music. The London Symphony Orchestra is notorious for the hard time it can give conductors, and, at the start of his career Colin Davis was no exception. In an appreciation published in London's Guardian an LSO member describes the Colin Davis of the late 1950's (when his name was circulated as their next chief conductor) "not grown up as a human being. He often behaved as an overgrown schoolboy might behave." Later, however, Davis would achieve some of his greatest successes as the LSO's Principal Conductor from 1995-2006.  And when he stepped down from that role, the LSO musicians elected him their President.  
 
The Boston Symphony Orchestra was prominent among the many orchestras that had a close relationship with Colin Davis.  He spent much of the 1970s shuttling back and forth between London, where he was Music Director of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden (with whom he made landmark recordings of Berlioz and Mozart operas) and his post as Principal Guest Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra,  for which he made a landmark series of Sibelius recordings.   Colin Davis also made landmark recordings of Handel (to my mind, the first listenable Messiah, in 1966, which still holds up very well); Haydn Symphonies with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam; an amazing "Great" C Major Symphony by Schubert with the Boston; and Grammy-winning accounts of Les Troyens by Berlioz and Verdi's opera Falstaff with the London Symphony Orchestra.  
 
The list of great Colin Davis recordings goes on and on, and will doubtless be discussed at length in the coming weeks. Sir Colin was a true giant in the music world, and will be greatly missed. 


NPR: Remembering Colin Davis

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