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.
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.