an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me | Advertise | Follow me:

The last time Sir Colin Davis picked up a baton

We reported earlier today about the rehearsal that Sir Colin took last month with a London amateur orchestra. We have since been in touch with the soloist at that session who, requesting anonymity, shared the circumstances of the extraordinary event.

Apparently, Sir Colin had been feeling a bit stronger and, remembering that he was due to conduct the Brahms concerto with Nikolai Znaider and the LSO, asked the soloist if he could rehearse the work with him and a chamber orchestra, composed of amateurs. Calls were made and people sneaked off work. ‘He was visibly frail,’ says my informant, ‘but the sincerity of his music-making and love for the Brahms (and Schubert Unfinished that followed) of course shone through….’

What did you learn from him? I asked.

‘Well his tempos were certainly slower than I’m used to…probably in part due to his being frail, but also I’m sure a connection with an older style of interpretation, when nothing was rushed and there was always time to make a phrase….that is something that can be overlooked these days I guess as we try to play faster and always metronomically.’

Did you challenge his tempi?

‘I did ask for one or two things to be a bit quicker, but as I wasn’t going to be the soloist for the gig it was a slightly unusual situation. I think everyone was just so glad to be there and trying to imbibe every ounce of music from him, so it was a very positive and uplifting afternoon, though of course sad…  I am so grateful for the opportunity of getting to rehearse the Brahms with him, my tiny glimpse into the greatness of the man and musician.’

Quite apart from the poignancy of the occasion, I am struck by its intimacy. All through his working life, Sir Colin kept in touch with his roots – the grass roots of music making in London. It was the most fitting thing in the world that the last session of his life was spent working mostly with amateurs – men and women who, like himself, loved music as the greatest love of their lives. Sir Colin died last night, aged 85.

May he rest in well-deserved peace.

barbican-concert-leightonSir Colin Davis with the Barbican Young Orchestra in 2008. Photo (c) by Kevin Leighton

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


  1. What a beautiful tribute! The fact that this old man would stop by and work with an amateur band to practice is quite moving. We don’t see great maestri do that too often. It was never about his ego–it was always about Sir Colin Davis respecting the music, and trying to make it great. This is very rare indeed.

  2. This was the thing with Sir Colin, he would work with anyone believing it more important to inspire and get the music out than always work with the top professionals (hence his willingness to work with amateurs and young people).

    He knew that amateur music makers metamorphose into audience members and that young musicians feed our university departments, conservatoires, concert hall seats and opera house seats.

    Encouraging the humble is worthwhile, they pay for music and turn into musicians. The stem for amateur comes from the same word as amour, to love. Even now I earn money making music, I strive to be an “amour-teur” and that was what Sir Colin was too.

  3. Can’t help feeling that we heard far too little about this man when he was alive.

    (Not a dig at Slipped Disc, BTW.)

  4. ruben greenberg says:

    One always felt that the spiritual dimension was at all times uppermost in Sir Colin’s music-making. This dimension is often forgotten these days; sacrificed to technique and to being historically informed. Without downplaying the latter, ultimately music must address itself to the heart.

  5. The late sir Colins rarely conducted or recorded Mahler with the orchestras he worked with. Any idea why?

    • Istvan Horthy says:

      In an interview he admitted to not liking many of his symphonies, including the “dreadful” 5th. He thought Sibelius a greater and deeper composer. He also said that there were already too many people doing Mahler.

    • - perhaps Sir Colin, ever the Gentleman,dare not utter Maestro Sawallisch’s thoughts…
      … Mahler, despite great box office appeal,
      was conspicuously absent from Mr. Sawallisch’s programs:
      He likened Mahler symphonies to
      “a man fumbling for the key to his front door and never finding it.”

  6. Mark Stratford says:

    When Abbado was doing his London Mahler cycle in early 80s, he admitted he was not ready to conduct #8 and Sir Colin conducted that one.

    And interestingly Abbado – the great Mahler conductor – is now known to have conducted any of the Sibelius symphonies (only the violin concerto)

  7. Orin O'Brien says:

    It is with great sadness that I read about Sir Colin departing this earth. However he has left so many musical
    memories with the musicians who worked with him: when he made his debut with the New York Philharmonic in 1968/69 season (I think it was), he had an entire month to work with us, doing four separate programs during that month. His Berlioz was incandescent and full of fiery zest, his Mozart was strong and full of many details, and his Brahms 2nd Symphony was so beautiful that our second oboist, Jerome Roth and I wrote him a letter together, and handed it to him during his last rehearsal. We wanted to tell him that his Brahms 2nd was so special and beautiful that we would always remember it, and we assured him (since he was just beginning his international career) that he was going to have a wonderful life in music and be a very sought-after conductor. In fact, many members of the N.Y. Philharmonic came to our orchestra committee and asked them to please tell our manager that we liked Colin Davis very much and would be happy with him as our next Music Director. I believe that at one time, later, he was asked to be Music Director, but declined because he wanted to raise his children in England. We played many wonderful concerts with him, and many of us enjoyed the rehearsals even more because of his warm personality and insights into the music he loved. Sibelius, Berlioz, Mozart, Michael Tippett and Britten too — I am sure that the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra members remember his “Peter Grimes” the same way we remember everything he did with us.

an ArtsJournal blog