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Remembering Colin Davis, A Conductor Beloved Late In Life

The late Colin Davis conducting the last night of Proms at London's Royal Albert Hall in September 1968.
George Freston
Getty Images
The late Colin Davis conducting the last night of Proms at London's Royal Albert Hall in September 1968.

English conductor Sir Colin Davis, an artist who reached the summit of his career in his 70s and was celebrated for his interpretations of music by Berlioz, Sibelius and Mozart, died Sunday at age 85 of an unspecified illness. His death was announced by the London Symphony Orchestra, the group with whom he made his debut in 1959 but only reached his true heights only many decades later, after a resurgence that began in 1995.

Born in Weybridge, Surrey Sept. 25, 1927, Davis grew up with six siblings and without electricity; his father had been broken by his service in World War I and plunged into debt during the Depression. The young Davis found his way into his chosen career along a rather capricious path. A great-uncle helped him get a place at Christ's Hospital School in West Sussex, and there Davis started playing clarinet with the encouragement of an older student. Despite his teachers' wishes for him to pursue a science degree, he was admitted with a clarinet scholarship to London's Royal College of Music.

Davis never intended to make a career of the clarinet, however; he always knew he wanted to conduct. Yet his path was made much more difficult by his inability to play the piano, and he was barred from conducting classes at the conservatory due to his lack of keyboard skills. Instead, he fulfilled his mandatory military service after graduation as a clarinetist with the Household Cavalry. It was also during this time that he married his first wife, soprano April Cantelo, with whom he had two children.

While Davis played clarinet part time at Glyndebourne and with the New London Chamber Orchestra and conducted local choruses — a time he later termed his era in the "amateur wilderness" — he also began conducting two newly formed ensembles. They were a local group called the Kalmar Orchestra, comprised of other new graduates of the Royal Conservatory, and the semi-professional Chelsea Opera Group, where he began his lifelong love of conducting Mozart operas. Despite his command of work by composers from Haydn to Sir Michael Tippett, Davis was known for investigating and reinvestigating works, evidenced by his three separate recorded cycles of Sibelius symphonies — first with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, followed by two with the London Symphony.

Davis' first professional break came in 1957, when he was engaged as the assistant conductor at the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The following year, he made his debuts with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Hallé Orchestra. In fall 1959, he had a storybook moment: he was invited to fill in for an ailing Otto Klemperer at a gala performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni with two superstar soloists, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Joan Sutherland. Davis went on to be named chief conductor at Sadler's Wells in 1959 and was named its music director in 1961.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Davis' name circulated as a possible chief conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Royal Opera House, but neither job came his way. During this period he was, by all accounts, neither mature nor agreeable; tantrums and arguments were the norm. An LSO cellist who knew Davis at the time later told the Guardian that Davis "was not grown up as a human being. He often behaved as an overgrown schoolboy might behave."

But the 1960s marked a turning point in Davis' life and career. His first marriage dissolved and in 1964 he married his family's former au pair, a young Iranian woman named Ashraf Nani, better known as Shamsi, with whom he eventually had five children: Kurosh, Kavus, Farhad, Sheida and Yalda. (Lady Davis, as she was later known, died in 2010.) In 1967, he was named chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He became more prominent on the international conducting circuit and was named principal guest conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1972.

Eventually Davis became music director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, where he succeeded Sir Georg Solti. But his 15 years there were marked by controversy and clashes with the opera's board of directors, and he departed in 1986. Yet his international career was still booming — he was named music director of the Bavarian Radio Symphony in 1983, served as principal guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic between 1998 and 2003 and became honorary conductor of the Dresden Staatskapelle in 1990, a post he held until his passing. Unlike many of his contemporaries in the classical world, Davis turned away from the most glamorous trappings of his jet-set career. His enthusiasms included knitting.

What was inarguably Davis' greatest professional period began quite late in his life. In 1995, he was named principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra — nearly 30 years since he had first been considered for the job, and by all accounts a changed man since his "overgrown schoolboy" days. Upon his passing, the LSO wrote: "His musicianship and his humanity have been cherished by musicians and audiences alike ... He will be remembered with huge affection and admiration by the LSO and our thoughts are with his family at this time."

Davis' performances and recordings with the LSO, including a magisterial and commanding investigation of music by Hector Berlioz, including a widely hailed recording of the little-heard opera Benvenuto Cellini and the Grammy-winning recording of the opera Les Troyens, which also won a Gramophone Award. In 2006, he stepped down from the LSO podium, whereupon the musicians voted him their president.

Knighted in 1980, Davis won three Grammy Awards, two for his Berlioz Troyens in 2002 and then again in 2006 for his recording of Verdi's opera Falstaff, also with the LSO. Nearly as soon as the LSO posted their announcement of Davis' passing on their website, tributes began pouring in from fans, colleagues and fellow musicians around the globe. Noted English pianist Imogen Cooper wrote: "A wonderful musician, whose humanity and ever fresh love of and wonder at music made collaboration with him unique. What a contribution he has made to the musical world. I write this with a heavy heart and many thoughts to both his family and his musical family."

And a young French horn player named Jacob Rowe contributed this memory of his time spent under Davis' baton: "I will miss Sir Colin greatly — a great source of inspiration to so many young musicians. I feel very privileged to have played under his baton. I will never forget a rehearsal where he was getting annoyed with a cymbal player who wasn't playing loudly enough. After several tries with little improvement, he got off his podium and left the rehearsal hall, leaving the orchestra very surprised and a little shocked. A couple of minutes later, there [was] an almighty crash from the percussion section — the orchestra turns round to see Sir Colin standing there with a massive grin on his face: 'If I can do it, then so can you.'"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.