At risk of potentially tacky understatement, this has not been the best week in the history of humanity. But even before the horrors of Monday, for one small niche of people, this week had a bad start on Sunday, with some sad news from across the Atlantic. Last Sunday, the British conductor Sir Colin Davis died, age 85. Best known among classical music aficionados for his conducting of the music of Hector Berlioz, Davis had notable careers with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO). In fact, he had been booked to conduct concert performances with the LSO of Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw this week, on Tues. 4/16 and Thurs. 4/18. However, it was not to be. As a bit of a side note, with respect to this week, there is even a connection between Davis and Boston. More below the flip.....
Tributes to Davis have been flowing thick and fast the whole week. The LSO's own tribute is at this page. Obviously the focus has been on his greatest moments of music making, his successes in conducting Berlioz, his "Indian summer" period with the LSO, and the best of his opera years.
As with any artist, though, not all is sweetness and light. In this tribute in The Guardian, the British music writer David Nice notes that in the early part of his career, Davis was often, though not always, a "plays well with others" type, in the context of him being considered for principal posts in the 1960's with either the Royal Opera House of the LSO:
'.......doubts were voiced about his stability, and many musicians found him, as he admits he then still was, "a bit hard and tactless".'Adam Sweeting, in the obit from the UK arts blog The Arts Desk, notes similarly:
"In 1961 he was appointed music director at Sadler's Wells Opera, where he delivered notable performances of works by Stravinsky and Beethoven's Fidelio, but during this period he became notorious for his abrasive manner towards his workmates."Robert Ponsonby, a former controller of The Proms, commented more generally in his tribute in The Independent, expanding the scope of Davis' attitude more broadly:
"He was wryly aware of his anarchic streak. No respecter of persons, he detested hypocrisy and pomposity. He was unconventional to the point of childishness, once putting out his tongue when booed at Covent Garden."In this article from the Telegraph, Rupert Christiansen tempers the tributes just a bit, which even has a bit of a nod towards politics in the general sense:
"For all the passionate humanity in his conducting style, however, he could be tetchy, surly and cantankerous with colleagues, and those at the receiving end of his witheringly sardonic tongue often found it hard to forgive him. The absence of emollient diplomacy in his personality (he was a conviction musician, not a compromiser) meant that his stint at Covent Garden would prove a roller-coaster ride."In this 2011 NYT article, Michael White quoted Davis in this retrospective self-assessment:
"In his own words, he was 'a furious young man with personal problems and an unbridled temper' that made for stormy encounters with the succession of English musical organizations he ran from the 1960s through '80s. Several of his appointments didn't start well. Most ended badly, with recriminations."The 'personal problems' included falling big time for the Iranian au pair girl in the mid 1960's who looked after the 2 children from his first marriage. Davis' first marriage broke up as a result. He found the Iranian girl, Ashraf Naini (nicknamed Shamsi), married her (in ceremonies in both the UK and Iran), and enjoyed a long and happy marriage that produced 5 children and only ended with Lady Davis' death in 2010, which hit Davis hard, as White noted (with a flare of Davis' acid tongue noted earlier):
".....to visit him is to enter a house where he seems to pad around, broken and lonely. He admits to it. And when I made the no-doubt fatuous observation that life was different now without his wife, he replied with barely disguised bitterness, 'That is your greatest understatement of the morning.'In this compilation of mini-tributes in The Guardian, the general director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Sir John Tooley, remembers, shoving any ill feelings under the rug, but with just barely enough for you to read between the lines:
'Left alone, it's difficult to see the point of doing things you used to do together,' he added. 'Which is very undermining.'"
"The 15 years that Colin and I shared at Covent Garden were a wonderful time. True, it was difficult at the beginning, but that's been the same with other music directors. And that difficulty wasn't because of Colin being awkward; it was because he couldn't really come to terms with authority. All that he was interested in was making music – his humility put him at a huge disadvantage when it came to things like the board."This statement about difficulty with coming to terms with authority, perhaps both internal and external, potentially explains a lot about maybe why there were so many issues. Obviously something must have changed over the decades, because in a further self-assessment in discussion with the NYT's White, when it came time to offer Davis the principal conductorship of the LSO in the 1990's:
"'So when they offered me the job, I agreed, on one condition: that I had no power, because it lands you into situations you can do without.'Davis expanded on this in a more meta sense, in this 2011 interview by Tom Service from The Guardian:
Renouncing power, after so many years of exercising it unhappily, was part of his self-reinvention. The deal with the London Symphony was that he would conduct but not hire, fire or take on the usual all-around responsibilities of a music director.
'I vowed I'd never be responsible for an orchestra again...and my only regret is that I didn't come to that conclusion earlier in my life. But there you are. You learn.'"
"One's ego becomes less and less interesting as you get older, to oneself and to everyone else. I have been around it too long.What we now remember and celebrate from Sir Colin Davis is, of course, memories of his performances, and audio and video mementos of his music making. From YT, you can get a sampling such as these items:
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. You are of no account whatever. But if you can help people to feel free to play as well as they can, that's as good as it gets."
(a) Berlioz, Requiem, 2000 Proms, Royal Albert Hall:
(b) Beethoven, Missa Solemnis, 2011 Proms, RAH (his last Prom):
(c) Haydn, The Creation, Barbican Centre, London:
(d) Handel, Messiah, Barbican, London:
If one had to pick just one area where Davis will be rememebered for particular set of contributions to classical music, it will undoubtedly be for his advocacy of the music of Hector Berlioz, in concert and on record. The former TV producer and now author Humphrey Burton, who also became Davis' brother-in-law by dint of his first marriage, commented here, also from The Arts Desk:
"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."Davis pretty recorded the complete orchestral music and operas of Berlioz, for the-then Philips label. In particular, his recording of Berlioz's single largest work, Les Troyens, in its complete form, was the first commercial recording of the work, issued around the time of the Berlioz (death) centenary year of 1969. Davis had been immersed in the music of Berlioz for a number of years before that, and also had preparation from conducting the work live at Covent Garden. The Berlioz discography has expanded considerably since Davis, of course, but his recordings remain benchmarks in recorded Berlioz advocacy. He got to revisit many of the major Berlioz works during his LSO period for their self-produced LSO Live label. As you would expect, the LSO dedicated the Tuesday concert to Davis, and I expect the Thursday one as well.
I mentioned pre-flip that there was a connection between Davis and Boston. That connection is that he was principal guest conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1972 to 1984. You can read the BSO's tribute page to him at this link. Some of the articles cited here mentioned that back in the early 1970's, Davis was actually a leading candidate to be music director of the BSO. However, based on the accounts of his relatively young-ish personality, and probably by his own estimation, Davis didn't really have the temperament to be the music director of an American orchestra, with its requirements for schmoozing and glad-handing donors.
Davis was also a strong advocate of the music of Michael Tippett, selected operas of Benjamin Britten (notably Peter Grimes), and the symphonies of Sibelius. In fact, in this summer's schedule for The Proms in London, you can find the program for Prom 51, which features music of Tippett, Britten, and Sibelius. The orchestra is the LSO. But if you click through to the link, you'll see that no conductor is listed. No prizes for guessing who was probably originally booked as conductor.
I was lucky enough to hear Davis conduct live twice, both times with the LSO, but in NYC (go figure). No Berlioz, but Czech music and British music on the respective concerts. Both were of very high quality, as you might expect, which is some indication of his assessment of his time with the LSO as "the best time of my professional life".
BTW, there's an interesting coincidence between composer (Berlioz) and Davis (conductor and leading advocate). Berlioz's instrument was the guitar. Davis' was the clarinet. Neither of them learned to play the piano. Not that these coincidences really mean anything, but.....
So we remember here Sir Colin Davis, and say thanks for the great musical moments that he gave the world. If you were fortunate enough to see him conduct live, feel free to share any memories. Or if you know his recordings and have some favorites, likewise, discussion is welcome.
Or given that this is another 3CM diary series mash-up, if you want to observe the usual SNLC protocol, you're welcome to do so.....