I won’t be the only musician feeling sad at the news announced by the LSO yesterday evening. Sir Colin Davis passed away at the age of 85 after a mesmerizing life of achievement and contribution to music. Like so many of the great conductors he was still studying, learning and experimenting right up to the very end. The news was announced with a real sense of loss and affection that is not surprising. I didn’t know him personally but I do have personal memories, like many, I suspect, which he wouldn’t have known about.
I have an old, old vinyl recording of two Haydn symphonies which he made in Amsterdam. I remember the first time I heard it. I remember the sense of fun and joy and humanity. I remember I could never put it on without listening to both sides, both symphonies. I remember and still get when I play it, the sheer strength of personality with no egotistic damage to the music, quite the reverse.
But that is not the personal memory. I was a young teacher on the staff of the City of London School when Sir Colin’s son was a student there, already an excellent violinist. Sir Colin came to work with the school orchestra, so I engineered a break in my schedule and slipped into the back of the hall. When I arrived Sir Colin was down on his knees in the viola section, pleading with the players to ‘sing’ their line more expressively. Not the first violins, not the cellos. The violas, who must sometimes feel as if the conductor barely knows they exist. Down on his knees singing from his heart to a school orchestra. If any of us needed more proof that ‘it matters’ then maybe we should have been thinking about another career.
I have chosen this video of the 2000 Proms performance of the Berlioz Grandes messe des morts. The performance drew together young performers from the Paris Conservatoire and the Guildhall in London. We sang it as RCM students in the Albert Hall in the 80′s, combining with students from the RAM. It seems an appropriate requiem for a man who championed the music of Berlioz and who gave so much of his time to the development of young musicians.