Born September 25, 1927, in Weybridge, Surrey, England; son of Reginald George (a bank clerk) and Lillian Constance (Colbran) Davis; married April Rosemary Cantelo (a singer; divorced, 1964); married Ashraf Nani, 1964; children: one son, Kurosh. Education: Attended Royal College of Music, mid-1940s. Addresses: Office--Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, 16 Clerkenwell Green, London EC1R 0DP, England.
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 September 25, 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 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 ailing Sir 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 a tremendous 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 Guide contributor Philip Haldeman, who found the recording of Tapiola particularly noteworthy. "Every shadowy secret and poetic nuance of Sibelius's dark forest 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."
by Carol Brennan
Colin Davis's Career
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-.
Colin Davis's Awards
Commander of the Order of the British Empire, 1965, knighted, 1980; Grand Prix du Disque Mondiale, 1967, for recording of Handel's Messiah; Gold Medal, Royal Philharmonic Society, 1995.
- Selected discography
- 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, Tapiola, Night Ride, Sunrise , RCA, 1999.
- American Record Guide, July/August 1997; March/April 1998; September/October 1999.
- Stereo Review, February, 1996, p. 152.