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Colin Davis struggled in his early years

Since the announcement last month of the death of British conductor Colin Davis, dozens of eulogies have been published relating various facts about his illustrious career. One of the facts of that career is the difficult early years of his musical life, when he excelled with the clarinet but was stymied in his ambition to conduct by a lack of finesse with a piano keyboard. He was not allowed to conduct at his Alma Mater, the Royal College of Music in London.

Davis spent some years playing clarinet part time and conducting local orchestras and choruses, including the Chelsea Opera Group. According to most reports, that is where he found what would become a lifelong delight in conducting Mozart operas. By the latter part of his career, Davis was renowned for his interpretations of Sibelius and Berlioz as well as Mozart. With an enviable ear for nuance, he ‘investigated and re-investigated’ to bring out different aspects of a composition.

Though he gained national recognition by the late 1950’s as assistant conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony (1957) and a year after that with the London Philharmonic and the HallĂ© Orchestra, Davis’s ‘storybook moment’ came in 1959. Otto Klemperer was scheduled to conduct a highly publicized performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni with starring soloists Joan Sutherland and Elisabeth Schwartzkopf, and Davis was invited to stand in when Klemperer fell ill.

That was a turning point in his conducting career; Davis was chosen as chief conductor at Sadler’s Wells in 1959 and in 1961 became the music director. However, he had not ‘matured’ in the sense of stability and confidence; colleagues and critics observed that he was temperamental, bristly and difficult to please, arguing and throwing tantrums and alienating many of his contemporaries.

It was in the latest stage of his long career that Davis apparently mellowed out; those who remember him best agree that when he was named principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra in 1995 he began the best years of his conducting life. He continued to win awards including Grammys, and won the profound respect and affection of his players. When he stepped down as PC in 2006 the LSO made him their president.

 

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