Critics deem Sir Colin Davis one of Britain’s greatest living conductors. His career is noteworthy for long associations with the Symphony Orchestra of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He is also particularly renowned in classical circles for his work with opera companies, such as Milan’s La Scala, on heady new productions from among the repertoire of great operas by the likes of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Giuseppe Verdi. North American audiences have encountered and found favor with Davis and his talents since the 1950s, and he has recorded with both his own orchestras as well as with some of Europe’s most illustrious ensembles over the course of several decades since.
Davis was born Colin Rex Davis on September25, 1927, in Weybridge, a town in England’s Surrey countryside. A brood of seven children depended on his father’s salary as a bank clerk, but Reginald and Lillian Davis imparted to their children the more invaluable gift of music appreciation. Classical records were commonplace in the home, and Davis went on to play clarinet in the band at his school, Christ’s Hospital Boys’ School in Sussex. At the Royal College of Music, he continued in his study of the instrument, and even played it in the band of the Household Cavalry when he was drafted into military service in 1946.
After two years in the Cavalry, Davis came to realize that his overwhelming desire was not to play, but to conduct. He practiced in his apartment to recorded music, read the formal manuals for the art, and took a sole lesson with a professional. He was still playing the clarinet, however, and in the pit of the Glyndbourne Orchestra, he was able to observe a famed conductor, Fritz Busch, and his movements. Davis then began conducting with small orchestras, such as the Kalmar in 1949, and small vocal ensembles like the Chelsea Opera Group in 1950. His professional debut came during the ballet season at London’s Royal Festival Hall in 1952.
Over the next five years, Davis continued to perfect his craft, and in 1957 was hired by the BBC’s Scottish Orchestra as its assistant conductor. He spent two years with it in Glasgow, while also accepting the Scottish National Orchestra’s invitation to serve as guest conductor. In 1959, he was appointed conductor of Sadler’s Wells Opera, a London outfit. Within a few months of his return to the capital, a fortuitous opportunity came Davis’s way: the legendary conductor Otto Klemperer fell ill before a scheduled engagement with the London Philharmonic, and officials at the Royal Festival Hall asked Davis if he would like to take Klemperer’s place. The performance was Don Giovanni, the Mozart opera, and boasted a celebrated array of
Born September 25, 1927, in Weybridge, Surrey, England; son of Reginald George (a bank clerk) and Lillian Constance (Colbran) Davis; married April Rosemary Cántelo (a singer; divorced, 1964); married Ashraf Nani, 1964; children: on son, Kurosh. Education: Attended Royal College of Music, mid–1940s.
Professional clarinet player with the Glyndbourne Orchestra; made professional conducting debut at the Royal Festival Hall, 1952; assistant conductor, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Scottish Orchestra, Glasgow, 1957–59; conductor, Sadler’s Wells Opera, London, 1959; principal conductor, Sadler’s Wells Opera, London, 1960–65; chief conductor, BBC Symphony Orchestra, 1967–71; musical director, Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, London, 1971–83; principal conductor and music director, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Munich, Germany, 1983–92; honorary conductor, Dresden Staatskapelle, 1990–; principal conductor, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, London, 1990–.
Addresses: Office —Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, 16 Clerkenwell Green, London EC1R ODP, England.
performers; Davis’s guidance over them and the outstanding orchestra over those two nights cemented his reputation as one of Britain’s new generation of conductors. He was just thirty–two. That same year, he embarked upon what would be the first of several lengthy tours of the North American continent, and conducted the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Symphony Orchestra for a series of broadcasts across Canada.
Davis remained with Sadler’s Wells, and was named principal conductor in 1960. That same year, when another celebrated conductor became ill, Davis was asked to substitute for an ailingSir Thomas Beecham, founder of the Royal Philharmonic, at the Glyndbourne Festival. In 1961, he made his professional debut on American soil with the Minneapolis Symphony, and returned to the country in 1964 to conduct at New York’s Carnegie Hall with a fellow maestro Georg Solti on a tour commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the London Symphony Orchestra. New York critics extolled Davis’s talents in the next day’s papers.
Davis remained principal conductor with Sadler’s Wells until the end of 1965, and then came to be professionally affiliated with the London Symphony Orchestra for the next few years. He made a recording for the Philips label with it and the LSO Chorus of Handel’s Messiah during 1966, which won France’s Grand Prix du Disque Mondiale the following year. Davis and the Orchestra even spent a month in Daytona Beach, Florida, as part of the inaugural festivities for the newly created Daytona International Music Festival. He also conducted the LSO’s impressive performance at London’s Royal Festival Hall of an opera from French romantic composer Louis–Hector Berlioz, The Trojans, in December of 1966. Just a month later, he returned to the United States and conducted a contemporary opera by twentieth–century English composer Benjamin Britten. Peter Grimes was atremendous success, and Davis earned wholehearted critical plaudits for his talents at the podium.
In the fall of 1967 Davis was named chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and for some time it was rumored that he would be tapped to fill American conductor Leonard Bernstein’s place when the latter retired from the New York Philharmonic. Davis’s extensive tour engagements, as well as a month–long guest stint with the New York Philharmonic in 1968, seemed a likely portent of a post with a major North American orchestra. But instead he was named musical director of the Royal Opera at Covent Garden in 1971, where he spent the next dozen years. In 1983 he was appointed principal conductor and music director of the renowned Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich, Germany. He remained there until the early 1990s, when he returned to England to accept the position of principal conductor for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He became the principal guest conductor of the Dresden Staatskapelle in 1990, and of the New York Philharmonic in 1998.
Davis’s first marriage ended, and in 1964 he married a student of Persian heritage, Ashraf Nani, with whom he had a son. The British crown honored him in 1966 with its Commander of the Order of the British Empire medal in 1966, and he was knighted in 1980. Over the course of his long and distinguished career, Davis has made numerous recordings for the Philips and BMG Classics labels. Live performances of his work with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra are also noteworthy examples of his musical leadership. A recording of Gustav Mahler’s Eighth Symphony was reviewed by Stephen D. Chakwin Jr. in American Record Guide, who gave it effusive praise. “Davis takes broad but not slow-sounding tempos, gets his players to give full value to every note, lays down a solid bass line, and shapes the phrases with sure control and lyric splendor,” opined Chakwin.
Davis has become particularly associated with the repertoire of Berlioz, and of the nationalist Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. On two occasions he has made recordings of the entirety of Sibelius’s music—once in the 1960s with the Boston Symphony, and again in the mid–1990s with the London Symphony Orchestra. This latter work was critiqued by American Record Guidecon–tributor Philip Haldeman, who found the recording of Tapióla particularly noteworthy. “Every shadowy secret and poetic nuance of Sibelius’s darkforest is revealed in lush detail,” Haldeman wrote. “Davis builds the piece from a relatively unpretentious beginning, then draws us inevitably along the wispy paths and deep into the fairy grottos.”
On the occasion of a Sibelius Festival with the New York Philharmonic, Davis spoke with American Record Guide writer Wynne Delacoma about the Scandinavian composer, who died in 1957, and the affinity he feels with Sibelius. “I’m basically schizophrenic—like most people, only they don’t admit it,” Davis declared. “There are all kinds of dark, ghastly things in the dark wood of the human soul. And [Sibelius] brings them out. He’s a very complicated man. He was a huge drinker, riddled with self–doubt. He was a very, very difficult man but he had the intellect to get all this down on paper, thank God. It’s the conflict in oneself that is evident in Sibelius at all times.”
Complete Mozart Edition Vol. 37: Idomeneo/Davis, 1991.
Brahms: Choral Works/Davis, Stutzmann, Bavarian Radio, 1993.
Britten: A Midsummer Night’s Dream/Davis, McNair, Asawa, 1996.
Wagner: Lohengrin, RCA Victor, 1996.
Berlioz: Complete Orchestral Works/Sir Colin Davis, 1997.
Berlioz: L’Enfance du Christ, etc./Davis, Morison, Pears, 1997.
Mahler: Symphony 8, RCA, 1997.
Britten: Peter Grimes/Davis, Vickers, Harper, et al., 1999.
Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique/Colin Davis, et al., 1999.
Sibelius: Karelia Suite, The Oceanides, Finlandia, Valse Triste, Tapióla, Night Ride, Sunrise, RCA, 1999.
American Record Guide, July/August 1997; March/April 1998; September/October 1999.
Stereo Review, February, 1996, p. 152.
Sir Colin Rex Davis
Sir Colin Rex Davis
Sir Colin Davis (born 1927) is considered by critics as one of Britain's greatest conductors. His illustrious career has been marked by extended relationships with the Symphony Orchestra of the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He is well known for his interpretations of Mozart, Berlioz, and Stravinsky.
Obsession with Music
Sir Colin Davis was born on September 25, 1927, in Weybridge, Surrey, England. He was the fifth of seven children born to Reginald George, a bank clerk, and Lillian Constance (Colbran) Davis. The large family lived in a flat above a shop. Although his mother played the piano occasionally and his father was known to have a soothing tenor voice, neither of his parents were musicians, but rather simply music lovers. From a very early age, Davis showed a tremendous interest in music. His father had a large collection of classical music, and Davis spent hours listening to composers such as Elgar, Delius, Debussy, Sibelius, and Wagner. By the age of nine, Davis had become something of a loner, spending a great deal of time reading and listening to music. Davis applied for a scholarship to attend King's School in Wimbledon, where the family had since moved. After he failed the scholarship exam, his mother convinced the authorities at the boarding school to allow Davis to take it again. He did and, much to his mother's delight, passed. However, by that time, one of his brothers had graduated from Christ's Hospital Boys School, thereby leaving a space for Davis to enroll, which he did in 1938.
Upon entering the boarding school, Davis began studying the clarinet. He had already set his sights on becoming a musician, a career path generally discouraged by his instructors who wanted rather to push him toward the fields of biology or chemistry, subjects at which Davis also excelled. At the age of 13, music turned from a deep love to a strong obsession after listening to Beethoven's Eighth Symphony on a record his brothers had given him. His family did not exactly understand Davis's musical obsession, but nonetheless remained supportive. One of his two older sisters, Yvonne, told Davis's biographer Alan Blyth about Davis's visits to the family over school holidays. "He thought we were half-baked, probably because we didn't appreciate his music enough. We tried to tell him that there were other things besides music. Not that we were against his interest in it; in fact we always gave him miniature scores for his birthday." By the age of fourteen, Davis had still not been dissuaded from pursuing music. He also had a new, as yet undisclosed, desire: He wanted to become a conductor.
The Road to Conducting
Despite the lack of enthusiasm expressed by his instructors at Christ's Hospital, Davis won a clarinet scholarship to the Royal College of Music. There he expressed his wish to be a conductor. The school, however, found him lacking in piano, an instrument not to his liking, and music theory, prerequisites for conducting classes. Davis told The Economist in 1991: "I was given a clarinet at the age of 11. You can never make up for the earliest years that a child spends practicing the piano. I don't like the sound of a piano. Conducting has more to do with singing and breathing than with piano-playing. I studied singing, and breathing has lots to do with the length of a musical phrase. The difference between something alive and something dead is that the living thing breathes." Forbidden to study conducting, Davis began to doubt his ability to fulfill his dream, yet he also believed that musicians were confronted by challenges that tested their resolve. With no formal training, Davis learned his conducting skills by independent study, memorizing musical scores and developing his baton technique by "conducting" classical records.
In 1946 Davis was called into military service. He joined the Household Calvary and played clarinet in His Majesty's Life Guards Band. A rather easy assignment, the band played at parades and events for George VI. Stationed in Windsor, Davis was conveniently close to London and often found time to attend concerts. During his two years of military duty, he was able to experience the talents of important conductors such as Beecham, Bruno Walter, and Eduard van Beinum. After his discharge in 1948 Davis began his apprenticeship as a conductor.
In 1949 when a group of musicians from the Royal College who regularly played together to hone their skills and learn new music decided to delve into orchestral arrangements, they needed a conductor, and Davis was asked to fill the job. Forming themselves as the Kalmar Orchestra, the group practiced every Wednesday in the basement of the Ethical Church in Bayswater. The following year he was tapped to conduct the semi-professional Chelsea Opera Group, a small orchestra that attracted attention for its performances of Mozart operas in London, Oxford, and Cambridge. He made his professional debut in 1952 at the Royal Festival Hall in London, where he conducted ballet performances. He also gained experience working with the Ballet Russe and the Ipswich Orchestral Society.
Although Davis was gaining recognition for his conducting, he still had to supplement his income as a concert clarinetist. During this time of transition, steady work was difficult to come by for Davis. Those looking for a conductor still considered him primarily a clarinetist; those looking for a clarinetist had already relabeled him a conductor. The result was several financially lean years during which Davis conducted as often as he could, but also took odd jobs, such as conducting at music camps and summer schools and giving lessons at Cambridge. Davis felt the added pressure of supporting his growing family. He had married soprano April Rosemary Cantelo in 1949; the couple had two children, a daughter and a son, before divorcing in 1964.
Davis's first significant break came in 1957. After applying twice previously for a post as an assistant conductor for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Scottish Orchestra in Glasgow, Davis's third application was accepted. Over the next two years with the BBC, Davis honed his skills, expanded his repertoire, and gained much needed experience. He also continued his relationship with the Chelsea Opera Group and served as a guest conductor for the Scottish National Orchestra. During this time, Davis's varied works included Falstaff, Fidelio, The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Seraglio, and a highly touted Don Giovanni at the 1959 Edinburgh Festival.
In 1959 Davis was invited to become the music director of Sadler's Wells, an opera company based in London. Just a few months after accepting the job, Davis received his second, and most important, break of his career. On October 18, 1959, famed conductor Otto Klemperer fell ill before a performance of the London Philharmonic that he was scheduled to conduct at the Royal Festival Hall. Davis was asked to step in. The performance was Mozart's DonGiovanni, an opera with which Davis was extremely familiar. With a highly talented cast on stage and in the orchestra, Davis's performance over the next two nights was received with spectacular reviews. He had, at the age of thirty two, been "discovered" as the next great British conductor.
Davis's career had struggled to get off the ground, but after October 18, 1959, he became an instant celebrity. "I wasn't ready," he told Blyth, "to be the kind of success that I was supposed to be." Despite his misgivings about his sudden fame, Davis set off on several extended tours, including a series of guest appearances with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Symphony Orchestra. The following year, in 1960, he once again stepped into the limelight when he filled in for another famed conductor. This time, Sir Thomas Beecham had fallen ill, and Davis was called on to lead a performance of The Magic Flute at the Glyndebourne Festival. Again, Davis's conducting was lauded by the public and critics alike.
Life in the Spotlight
In 1960 Davis was named principal conductor at Sadler's Wells, a position he maintained until 1965. In 1964, he married Ashraf Nani, a student of Persian descent. Also during this time he made his debut in the United States. In 1961 he appeared with the Minneapolis Symphony, and in 1964, he performed at Carnegie Hall in New York as part of a worldwide tour of the London Symphony Orchestra. These appearances greatly increased Davis's international fame. In 1965 he was named Commander of the Order of the British Empire; he was knighted in 1980. At the end of 1965 Davis was rumored to be in line to become the next chief conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra; however, the position was given to Istvan Kertesz. Instead, Davis accepted an offer to become the chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, a position that became effective in 1967. During the interim, Davis most often affiliated himself with the London Symphony Orchestra and traveled to the United States for several extended engagements. He also produced recordings under the Philips label, including the London Symphony Orchestra Chorus's performance of Handel's Messiah, which won France's Grand Prix du Disque Mondiale. A 1966 performance of Berlioz's' opera Les Troyens in London established Davis as the preeminent interpreter of Berlioz's' works.
During the late 1960s rumors spread again, this time that Davis would be asked to take the place of the revered Leonard Bernstein at the podium of the New York Philharmonic. As it happened, Davis was invited to become chief conductor of the Boston Symphony; however, he chose rather to accept an offer in 1971 to become the musical director of the Royal Opera at Covent Garden, a prestigious post he held with distinction for fifteen years. During his tenure at Covent Garden, Davis produced over 30 operas. Most notable were his performances of Mozart, Berlioz, Verdi, and contemporary composer Sir Michael Tippett. Davis served as the principal guest conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1972 to 1983. In that year he was named the principal conductor and music director of the renowned Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich, Germany. In 1985 he resigned from his duties with the Royal Opera to devote himself to his work in Munich and a heavily booked schedule of performances worldwide. In 1988 he was named to an international chair at the Royal Academy of Music. Davis returned to England in 1992 to become the principal conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Having retained his ties to the London Symphony Orchestra, he became the company's chief conductor in 1995. In the same year he was awarded a Gold Medal from the Royal Philharmonic Society. He also served as the principal guest conductor for the Dresden Staatskapelle from 1990 and for the New York Philharmonic from 1998.
Along with his nearly unmatched career as one of the world's most important maestros to step behind the podium, Davis has also had a productive career in recorded music. His discography is long and impressive. Of particular note are his recordings of the music of Sibelius and Berlioz, which have spanned the entirety of the composers' works. In a review Berlioz's' Les Troyens, released in 2001 on the album LSO Live, Opera News reviewer Joshua Rosenblum commented on Davis's skill on both this album and his original release of Les Troyens in 1969: "The real hero of both recordings is Davis, whose lifelong devotion and impressive discography have probably done more for Berlioz appreciation than anyone or anything else." Rosenblum called Davis's 2001 version "splendid by any standard, with superb sonics and an exceptional supporting cast."
Davis continues his work with the London Symphony Orchestra. He maintains his position void of any administrative duties, but actively leads from the podium and retains his passion for music. In an interview in 2001 with Opera News Davis explained, "[Music] isn't in the notes. It's in the human heart. And you can theorize too much. We use our brains too much. These pieces are so emotional. Mozart is expressing something that is more than human."
Blyth, Alan, Colin Davis, Drake Publishers, 1973.
Kuhn, Laura, Baker's Dictionary of Opera, Schirmer Books, 2000.
Larue, C. Steven, ed., International Dictionary of Opera, St. James Press, 1993.
Sadie, Stanley, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Macmillan Publishers, 2001.
Slonimsky, Nicolas, ed., Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Schirmer Books, 2001.
Economist, September 28, 1991.
Opera News, October 21, 2001; November 2001. □