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The Conductor Who Gained Power By Giving It Up

Colin Davis found power in humility later in his career — and one astonished music journalist.
Alberto Venzago
Colin Davis found power in humility later in his career — and one astonished music journalist.

At NPR Music part of our job is to talk with musicians. It's always interesting, sometimes inspiring, infrequently tedious — and once in a blue moon, completely transcendent.

When I heard that Sir Colin Davis had died, my memory banks immediately locked in on the one and only time we met. It seems like mere months ago, since the impression he made was so vivid and potent, but it was in fact in the spring of 2001 when the conductor, just in his mid-70s, visited NPR to talk with Performance Today host Fred Child. I was the editor and producer of the interview.

By this time, Davis was legendary. He had conducted the world's great orchestras, directed London's Covent Garden Opera House and was knighted by the queen of his native England. Given his gold-plated resume, he certainly didn't act like a big shot.

What impressed me most about Davis wasn't his extraordinarily broad view of music and art, his eloquent turns of phrase, or even his naughty sense of humor (there was something about a toilet seat that didn't make it to tape), but it was instead something less tangible. It was his sense of self. And his humility.

Davis was a man who appeared completely at peace with himself — a confidence that radiated like a sacred aura. At the risk of sounding mawkish, after being with him for a less than an hour I felt somehow changed — enlightened, and a little shaky. Fred and I looked at each other after he left. We seemed to have caught some kind of contact high.

The bulk of the conversation concerned Hector Berlioz, the romantic-era composer Davis had chanced on as a young clarinetist.

"I was about 21, and I had just never heard music like that," Davis told us. "I never heard melodies that wafted away and came back to earth a long way off." That triggered Davis' life-long pursuit of everything Berlioz. He wound up championing the composer's strikingly unorthodox music like no other conductor before or since, recording both the hair-raising Symphonie Fantastique and the massive opera Les Troyens twice.

When he spoke with us, Davis was in the midst of his tenure as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. And the amazing way he agreed to the position speaks to his almost Buddha-like cool. He told the LSO he'd take the job under one condition: that he be rendered powerless.

"I wanted no more to do with hiring and firing players," he explained. "I didn't want to stand in the way of any other conductors or soloists. It means that I have a freedom with the orchestra because I'm not going to fire them. I'm going to accept what I'm given, and I'm going to work with them as fellow musicians, and let's see what we can do. I have never been happier in my life."

And that unconventional formula was Davis' bottled lightning. He and the orchestra began releasing live recordings with blistering intensity, earning three Grammy Awards — two for Berlioz's Les Troyens and one for Verdi's Falstaff.

So Davis gained power by giving it up. It's wisdom he gained by eventually quelling the confrontational side of his fiery personality early in his career. After his years as the head of Covent Garden, Saddlers Wells and the Bavarian Radio Orchestra, he learned how to pick his battles, and learned when to lay down the sword.

"It took me all that time to discover that power and money are total disaster, and music is infinitely more interesting than either," Davis said.

Am I sad that Colin Davis is gone? Certainly. But in many ways, Davis is still here. His dozens of deeply thoughtful performances of Mozart, Haydn, Sibelius and Berlioz are there for listening and learning. And for me, there will always be the day he uncovered a fresh outlook on music and power that will not soon be forgotten.

Ever met any musicians who changed your life? Let us know in the comments section.

Colin Davis Recordings You Must Hear

  • Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique / London Symphony Orchestra (LSO Live 07)
  • Berlioz: Les Troyens / London Symphony Orchcestra (LSO Live 10)
  • Berlioz: Harold in Italy; Tristia / London Symphony Orchestra (Philips 416431)
  • Haydn: The London Symphonies Vol 1 / Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips 442611)
  • Mozart: Marriage of Figaro / BBC Symphony Orchestra (Philips 422540)
  • Sibelius: Complete Symphonies Vol. 1 / Boston Symphony Orchestra (Philips 446157)
  • Sibelius: Complete Symphonies Vol. 2 / Boston Symphony Orchestra (Philips 446160)
  • Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

    Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.
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