in: News & Features

April 18, 2013

Era Ends With Colin Davis’s Death- Updated

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A Boston Chorister’s Perspective by Laura Prichard:

Sir Colin Rex Davis died this month at the age of 85 after an illustrious career as a conductor and teacher. A frequent visitor to Boston, he made a permanent impression on three generations of Boston concertgoers and musicians, not least the singers of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, whom he conducted more than a dozen times.

Michael J. Lutch photo

Michael J. Lutch photo

Although trained as a classical clarinetist at the Royal Academy of Music in London, Davis decided early in life to pursue conducting as a career. He credited Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ with making early impressions on him, and helping to launch him as a conductor. His professional career began with part-time engagements as a clarinetist, teacher, and choral conductor, and he maintained, “Conducting has more to do with singing and breathing than with piano-playing.”

Davis made significant contributions to operatic and choral music in addition to symphonic repertory: in England he stood in for both Klemperer (at Royal Festival Hall) and Beecham (at Glyndebourne) to conduct major operas by Mozart, and he directed the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company from 1961-1965. Davis’ 1966 Philips recording of Handel’s Messiah was regarded as revelatory (for its departure from large-scale Victorian-style performances) and his two recordings of Berlioz’s Les Troyens won Grammys in 1970 and 2001).

In 1970, Davis turned down the directorship of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and accepted Sir David Webster’s offer to succeed Sir Georg Solti as principal conductor of the Royal Opera. He led more than thirty productions during his fifteen-year tenure, with notable successes including Britten’s Peter Grimes and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. During this period, Davis was the principal guest conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1972-1984). He recorded Sibelius’ symphonies with the BSO and gave the world premiere of Michael Tippett’s oratorio The Mask of Time in Boston’s Symphony Hall in 1984.

From 1983 to 1993, Davis was the chief conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, focusing on Mahler’s symphonies. He declined an offer from the New York Philharmonic to succeed Zubin Mehta at the New York Philharmonic, but was appointed the principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra in 1995 (he had led their first world tour in 1964), and brought the LSO for its first residency at Lincoln Center. He helped found the LSO Live Label and made many of the best choral /vocal recordings of the early twenty-first century, including major works by Beethoven (Fidelio, 2006), Berlioz (Le damnation de Faust and Roméo et Juliette, 2000), Britten (Peter Grimes, 2004); Elgar The Dream of Gerontius, 2005), Handel Messiah, 2006), Haydn  (Die Schöpfung, 2007), James Macmillan’s St. John Passion, 2008), Mozart (Requiem, 2007), Tippet (A Child of Our Time, 2007) and Verdi (Falstaff, 2004; Requiem, 2009; Otello, 2010).

In 2003, after a long absence, Davis began a series of frequent visits to the BSO and Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Of particular note was his 2008 account of Elgar’s Requiem-like oratorio The Dream of Gerontius, a performance of scrupulous detail and sublime tenderness. Many in the audience had been present when Mr. Davis first led the work in 1982, critic Richard Dyer called “one of the supreme musical highlights in this concertgoer’s life.” The 2005 TC season opened with Davis conducting Tippett’s A Child of Our Time and the 2009 season closed with him leading Berlioz’s Te Deum. In 2010, he conducted the American premiere of Macmillan’s St. John Passion with the BSO. The piece was a co-commission with the LSO to mark Davis’ 80th birthday, but he choose to conduct Mozart’s Requiem for his actual birthday concert in London.

In 2011, he chose Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis for the London Symphony Orchestra’s U.S. tour: “That piece is a hell of a task: it’s so difficult for the orchestra to play and the chorus to sing that performing it is like failing to reach the top of Mount Everest. I think it’s one of the great statements of any time. And nobody likes it very much. Except me…At the end of the piece, in the final movement, the Agnus Dei, Christ has gone back to heaven, and Beethoven gives us this image of humanity left behind, crawling about in this mud, loaded with sin. The music is saying that humans cry for peace – and make war. That’s what Beethoven means. It’s absolutely clear. The music reaches an intensity of protest that is almost unbearable. I believe every word of the Missa because Beethoven makes it possible. But when I’m left alone, I can’t believe anything. But for that brief hour and a half when I’m conducting the piece, I do.”

In 2000, Davis conducted the Berlioz Requiem at the Proms in Royal Albert Hall, performed by 147 student instrumentalists from all over Europe and 433 singers to create “a new feeling for a new millennium.” His first performance of the Requiem with professional forces had taken place in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London in 1966. His very last concert with the LSO was a performance of the same work, in the same location, in June 2012.

“The less ego you have, the more influence you have as a conductor. And the result is that you can concentrate on the only things that really matter: the music and the people who are playing it.”

Mark Devoto’s recollection continues BMInt’s obituary.

The first news that I heard upon arriving in London recently was of the death of Sir Colin Davis at the age of 85, and I had a sudden sense that an era had passed.

A full-page obituary by David Nice in the Guardian [here] gave the particulars of Davis’s long career, in which he distinguished himself as the last of a great generation of British conductors that began with Beecham, Boult, and Sargent before yielding to the younger generation, reigning today, that owes the older so much.

I had lost count of Davis’s great achievements all over Europe, including most famously his directorships at Covent Garden, the BBC Symphony, and the London Symphony, as well as a production of Wagner’s Ring, with a knighthood in 1980 and later royal honours. What I remember best is the wonderful series of recordings of Berlioz’s music that Davis made in the 1960s that first made him widely known in America, recordings that remain vivid today for their clarity and vitality. Berlioz’s Grande messe des morts, which I had always thought overblown and even drab when I had been a chorus nonentity when Charles Munch conducted the work, became a work of dazzling and even terrifying energy and inspiration in Davis’s hands. And Beatrice and Benedict, Berlioz’s last work, sparkled with bright champagne spirits when Davis recorded it. Now Davis is dead at a venerable age and at the end of an unforgettable career, and I can only think of the subtle quiet of the ending of Act I of that last opera, the Duo-Nocturne.

I saw Davis conduct only once—I think it was in 1982 or 1983—when he was principal guest conductor of the Boston Symphony, on a concert that included Berg’s Altenberg Lieder. The entire program proceeded with effortless grace and perfect control—with one exception, when at the end of Schubert’s Overture to Die Zauberharfe, Davis let go of his baton, which went sailing across the stage into the horn section. Nobody missed a beat; all the energy and discipline were there, but above all, the expressiveness was complete. The stick was returned to Davis in time for the next work, though he could have mastered the orchestra with just a fingertip if he had wanted to; as always, he commanded the orchestra’s total attention.

9 Comments

  1. End of an era, indeed. My very first visit to Symphony Hall was a concert in December 1975 at which Sir Colin conducted Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. He was in his prime then, and I don’t think any subsequent performances I’ve heard of the work since have quite measured up to my memories of that one. Random recollections include a noble Siegfried’s Funeral March as well as Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces. His Sibelius recordings with the orchestra have held the status of reference recordings ever since they were made. Bostonians were fortunate in having him here as principal guest conductor for so many years.

    Comment by FKalil — April 18, 2013 at 2:30 pm

  2. My most vivid memories of Davis were watching him breeze onto the stage during a BSO open rehearsal and get the orchestra to play the living daylights out of the Elgar 2nd Symphony.

    A YouTube search shows a couple of interesting Davis performances, including a terrific recent Sibelius 3rd with the NYPO from 2006: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4nTDz7Or3c8

    Comment by James C.S. Liu — April 18, 2013 at 3:44 pm

  3. Jeremy Eichler today in the Globe has a nice quote from long ago reminding what it was like to grow up musically in college in the 1960s with Davis’s conducting (also with Steinberg’s writing):

    “Reviewing a Haydn symphony performance with the BSO in 1968, Globe critic Michael Steinberg wrote: ‘I could hardly imagine a more beautiful performance than the one Davis extracted from the Boston Symphony. Davis knows just who Haydn was and what his music is all about. There was energy, grace, lyricism, a delighted response to the winged play of Haydn’s mind, a touch of something like swagger.'”

    I talked with Davis (meaning sparred) at a couple of dinner parties, and he certainly could be sharp and argumentative, but remained always informed and insightful. Like his conducting.

    Comment by David Moran — April 18, 2013 at 4:12 pm

  4. I agree with all the wonderful comments about this wonderful conductor and musician (not always the same thing, unfortunately). I first had the privilege to play under Maestro Davis’ baton in 1984, in a concerto performance with the BSO. I had performed this work (Frank Martin’s “Petite Symphonie Concertante”) several years earlier with another fine conductor, but Davis, like so many of the truly great musicians, had the ability to not only raise the musical and performance levels to another plane, but to also make the soloist (i.e., me) play better than he thought he could. Every subsequent performance with Davis has evoked a similar reaction, whether I was in some sort of solo capacity or “just” playing harpsichord continuo in a Haydn symphony. Speaking of Haydn, Steinberg was right: Davis knew “just who Haydn was and what his music is all about.” The same can be applied to many other composers and styles. Playing a small Haydn symphony with Colin Davis, or being thrilled to sit and listen to his performance of a gigantic work like the Berlioz “Requiem:” these were unforgettable experiences.

    Comment by Mark Kroll — April 19, 2013 at 9:33 am

  5. Mark DeVoto writes: “I saw Davis conduct only once—I think it was in 1982 or 1983—when he was principal guest conductor of the Boston Symphony, on a concert that included Berg’s Altenberg Lieder. The entire program proceeded with effortless grace and perfect control—with one exception, when at the end of Schubert’s Overture to Die Zauberharfe, Davis let go of his baton, which went sailing across the stage into the horn section.”

    Are you sure, Mark? I was at the Friday afternoon performance in December 1982 at saw Davis’s baton fly out of his hand at the end of the Rosamunde Overture (same thing, I know), and it was given back to him for the Schubert Unfinshed Symphony. The next work was Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, and he wrapped up with the Brahms Third Symphony. It was my first visit to Symphony Hall, after a five-hour bus ride from Albany! It was also my first time seeing Davis live, too. Then I faced another five-hour ride back, but it was worth it, as I sat in the fifth or sixth row, even though it was next to some smug society matrons.

    Comment by Don Drewecki — April 22, 2013 at 1:43 pm

  6. I heard him live once in London. I will remember him for the swap of the inner movements of Bruckner 7.

    Comment by Thorsten — April 23, 2013 at 2:34 pm

  7. All of the Boston Symphony’s concert programs (Symphony Hall and Tanglewood) have been scanned and made available via the Internet Archive web site, and they’re (somewhat) searchable. We can find the program listings for Colin Davis’s concerts of 16, 17, and 18 December 1982 here: http://archive.org/stream/bostonsymphonysub8283bost#page/n847/mode/2up . Don Drewecki’s recollection is correct, in that the concerts included Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, not the Altenberg Lieder. Indeed, Mark DeVoto wrote the program notes and the “more” recommendations for further reading and recordings of the Berg. No Altenberg Lieder in that season at all.

    A couple of weeks before, we had sung Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius under Colin Davis, with soloists Jessye Norman, Stuart Burrows, and John Shirley-Quirk—one of my most memorable experiences in over 40 years of singing with the BSO.

    Comment by Stephen H. Owades — April 24, 2013 at 12:26 am

  8. Thank you, Stephen, for confirming my memory of over 30 years ago. It was my first visit to SH, and I could never forget it.

    Comment by Don Drewecki — April 24, 2013 at 4:15 pm

  9. I’m grateful for Don Drewecki’s and Stephen Owades’s updating and corrections; after more than thirty years my memory wasn’t so sure, and I was reporting from England without my library at hand. Even now I can’t remember when I wrote the BSO notes for the Altenberg Lieder. I amended my notes for Opus 6 a few years back when Levine conducted. I did write the notes for Ozawa’s performances of Wozzeck in 1987; I was happy that the BSO allowed me a lot of space for them, but of course Wozzeck was the only work on the program.

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — May 3, 2013 at 10:28 am

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