Sir Colin Davis

Sir Colin Davis

The mentor

Published in 2003

“Conducting is like holding the bird of life in your hand: hold it too tight and it dies, hold it too lightly and it flies away,” philosophises Sir Colin Davis about the fine balance between control and freedom required to lead an orchestra.

For more than four decades, this legendary maestro-principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) has struck just the right balance by inspiring thousands of musicians with his vision and passion.

Clive Gillinson, managing director of the LSO, says that for Colin Davis “the music always comes first. There is no ego. His love of music is infectious, and he’s passed that culture on to the orchestra.”

Music has governed 75-year-old Sir Colin’s life. A bank clerk’s son from Surrey, England, he first fell in love with Mozart when he climbed the stairs of their home at night and “sang a Mozart piano concerto to keep the hobgoblins at bay”. Today, Sir Colin’s still lists Mozart among the composers to whose music he has devoted his career.

Sir Colin’s musical odyssey began at London’s renowned Royal College of Music where he studied the clarinet, an instrument he was first given at the age of 12. It was after hearing the 8th Symphony of Beethoven that he wanted to become a conductor. Disqualified from taking a course on conducting because he did not play the piano, he determined to teach himself and to learn everything he could from other musicians.

Sir Colin began his career in 1957 when he was appointed assistant conductor of the BBC Scottish Orchestra. Following this he served as principal conductor and then musical director at Sadler’s Wells (1959-65); chief conductor of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (1971-86); music director and principal conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (1983-92). Sir Colin has held guest conductorships throughout the world, including 20 years (1975-95) as principal guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic.

For the past eight years, Sir Colin has been the London Symphony Orchestra’s principal conductor, a role he tackles with verve and zeal. By taming his once infamous fiery temper, he has coaxed the best out of the world famous orchestra and earned the reputation as the elder statesman of his profession.

Over the years, Sir Colin has applied his talent for nurturing musicians to coaching and conducting youth orchestras. “The young should be confronted with the best,” he says.

Sir Colin’s prodigious output, both in the concert hall and through his numerous recordings, has merited critical acclaim and many international honours and awards. These include the Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal (1995), the French Légion d’Honneur (1999) and the Maximilian Award in Germany (2000). His recording, with the London Symphony Orchestra, of Les Troyens by Berlioz won two GRAMMY awards in 2002. The first Englishman to conduct the legendary Wagner festival in Bayreuth, Sir Colin was made a Commander of the British Empire in 1965, received a knighthood in 1980 and became a Companion of Honour in 2001.

Sir Colin Davis died on 14 April 2013.