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The conductor Sir Colin Davis has died at the age of 85. One of the most important figures in British music, Sir Colin was particularly admired for his Berlioz, Sibelius and Mozart. He brought his considerable expertise and enthusiasm, however, to a much wider repertoire during a career that lasted over 60 years and encompassed stints at the Royal Opera House, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Dresden Staatskapelle and the London Symphony Orchestra.
Conducting right until the last weeks of his life, Sir Colin’s brilliance showed no sign of dimming. Only last year, at the age of 84, he recorded the symphonies of Nielsen for the first time in his career, and met with rave reviews. ‘Colin Davis has come late to Carl Nielsen,’ wrote The Times. ‘But his live recordings of the Dane’s symphonies are likely to be as definitive as his earlier discs of Sibelius and Berlioz… Superb performances all round.’
Davis’s musical life began at Christ’s Hospital school in Sussex where an older student suggested he take up the clarinet. He went on to study at the Royal College of Music but found that because he hadn’t learnt the piano he was unable to attend conducting lessons.
His conducting career began instead with the Kalmar Orchestra, an ensemble formed of students from the College, before being invited to conduct the semi-professional Chelsea Opera Group in performances of Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor and Don Giovanni.
His first professional post came when he was appointed assistant conductor at the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in 1957. It was there that a number of attributes that would define his career first came to the fore – his outstanding way with Mozart, his passionate advocacy of Berlioz, his enthusiasm for new music and the fiery personality that would go on to ruffle a few high-level feathers along the way.
An appointment as principal conductor at Sadler’s Wells came two years later, followed by the roles of chief conductor at the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1967, music director of the Royal Opera House in 1971 and principal conductor of the LSO in 1995.
That last role, which Sir Colin held until 2006, at which point he became the orchestra’s president, was something of an Indian summer, in which the former wild child of British music cemented his reputation as one of its most respected, and best loved, elder statesmen. The fieriness had by no means disappeared altogether, however – on the podium Davis was still capable of producing performances of astonishing passion and power.
Picking out a highlight from such a long career is a nigh-on impossible task, but it is arguably Sir Colin’s championship of Berlioz for which he will be best remembered. Still a relatively unfashionable composer when Davis first picked up a baton, he did much to elevate the Frenchman’s music to its current popularity – his performance of the opera Les Troyens at the Barbican in 2000, and later released on the LSO Live label, is perhaps his crowning achievement.
The owner of a pet iguana and an enthusiastic knitter, Sir Colin Davis was never a person to conform to stereotype. And throughout his career he was always lucid and forthright in his opinion, unafraid to stir up controversy – period instrument performances, for instance, found little favour with him.
Above all, though, his passion for music itself and sharing it with others remained right until the end. Talking to James Naughtie in BBC Music Magazine in 2011, he was asked to define the art of the conductor. ‘You must show that you are enjoying yourself,’ he replied. ‘When they know that, you communicate. Without it – nothing.’
Listen to some of Sir Colin’s greatest recordings on our Spotify playlist: