Sir Colin Davis: 'He simply knew how Mozart should go' | Classical music reviews, news & interviews
Sir Colin Davis: 'He simply knew how Mozart should go'
The distinguished broadcaster and biographer Humphrey Burton pays tribute to the conductor who became his brother-in-law
You have to be of a certain age to remember the excitement of those Berlioz years: it was a genuine voyage of discovery for everybody who participated and remains, I would submit, Colin Davis’s most significant contribution to the way we think about the music of the 19th century. He later made wonderful Berlioz LPs for Philips and at the end of the 20th century revisited the entire Berlioz repertoire for new performances and digital recordings while serving, belatedly, as the LSO’s chief conductor. My happiest Berlioz memory is of playing the bass drum in The Damnation of Faust, with David Cairns clashing away on the cymbals next to me. What a time we had in the Hungarian March, with Colin holding us back and then urging us on exultantly from the rostrum!
Later in the 1960s Colin moved to a good job at the BBC – his appointment as chief conductor of the Symphony Orchestra reminded everybody that he was equally at home in concert halls as opera houses. But the Sixties was mid-life crisis time for him. I had witnessed from close quarters the agonies Colin went through when he fell in love with the Persian girl who was looking after the children in the busy Davis household. He moved out of the family home and as soon as he could he travelled to Iran in search of the girl who had captured his imagination and his dreams. He read widely at this time among the esoteric mystics Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, also the writings of the Greek philopher Nikos Kazantzakis. He drew strength and inward calm from what he learnt; eventually he found his beloved Shamsi and persuaded her to return to England; they married and had five children; with his blessing she became an influential exponent of the Alexander relaxation technique as it applied to musicians. Her sudden death three years ago was a terrible blow for him.
Others will remind you of Colin’s subsequent career at the Royal Opera in the 1970s, in Munich and in Dresden, not to mention the glorious years at the Barbican when he finally became the LSO’s chief conductor in the 1990s. I just wanted to say farewell to the man who opened my ears to music when I was growing up. For hundreds of young performers at Music Camp, Bryanston summer school and Chelsea Opera Group, for thousands of music-lovers attending concert halls and the Proms and listening to radio and recordings, for opera students at the colleges, for the members of dozens of the world’s most famous orchestras - for all this huge constituency - Colin was a force of nature, an inspiration who will never be forgotten.
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