English Conductor Colin Davis Dies at Age 85

Audio: Colin Davis in a 1967 Interview with WNYC Host Patricia Marx

Sunday, April 14, 2013 - 07:00 PM

Sir Colin Davis Sir Colin Davis (Chris Lee)

Colin Davis, the president of the London Symphony Orchestra and that orchestra’s longest-serving conductor, died Sunday at age 85 after a short illness.

Often considered the quintessential British maestro, he was known as much for his Elgar and Tippett performances as his love of pipe smoking and shock of snowy white hair.

"He will be remembered with huge affection and admiration by the LSO and our thoughts are with his family at this time," the orchestra said in a statement on its website.

Coming out of an era of imperious maestros, Davis was known in his later years for his soft-spoken and gracious manner. His musical passions included Berlioz, Sibelius, Elgar and Stravinsky. Though he never held a full-time post in the United States, he was the principal guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic from 1998 to 2003, and held the same post with the Boston Symphony during the 1970s.

Davis was born in 1927 and studied clarinet at the Royal College of Music, going on to play in the band of the Household Cavalry during his mandatory military service.

He began his conducting career as assistant conductor with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in 1957, and moved to Sadlers Wells in 1959 as principal conductor and later as musical director. American dates followed in the 1960s, including a Peter Grimes at the Metropolitan Opera in 1967.

In 1971, after four years as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, he became musical director of the Royal Opera House, a post he held until 1986. This was not always a smooth period, marked by dissatisfaction among some audience members who favored his predecessor Georg Solti.

The latter half of Davis’s career was marked by long associations. He was chief conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich from 1986 to 1994. In 1995, the London Symphony came calling, and he served as principal guest conductor from 1995-2006, after which the orchestra appointed him president.

Davis was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1965 and was knighted in 1980. Among his other awards was a Grammy Award in 2006 for his LSO Live recording of Verdi's Falstaff; and a “pipe smoker of the year” award in 1995.

Davis's second wife, Ashraf Naini, died in 2010. He is survived by five children from their marriage, in addition to two from his previous marriage.

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Comments [7]

Nancy de Flon from Hudson Valley, NY

Thank you for the music, Colin. Thank you for that 1967 Peter Grimes. And for Wozzeck. For Berlioz and that fabulous Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall, Beethoven's Ninth at the Royal Festival Hall, The Midsummer Marriage at ROH, and Sibelius in New York, especially Sibelius 4. Now you're back with Shamsi. May the angels lead you into Paradise, Colin.

Apr. 15 2013 09:20 PM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

I neglected to mention earlier that it was because of Sir Colin Davis that I came to an appreciation of Handel's great oratorio, Messiah. A performance of Messiah with him conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and Choir was broadcast on public television quite a few years ago (I think in the early 80's). It was evident by the look of joy on his face as he conducted this work that he loved the music and loved to share it with his audience. It was the first time I had heard Messiah in its entirety, and I have loved it ever since, thanks to this wonderful performance. I have a recording of this performance on CD, and although I have a couple of other recordings of Messiah, this one is my favorite. Thank you, Sir Colin Davis, for helping me to appreciate Handel's masterpiece!

Apr. 15 2013 08:26 PM
Bob from Huntington, NY

May he rest in peace. I saw him conduct many times. No matter which ensemble he conducted, every concert was a real event.

Apr. 15 2013 04:40 PM
Bob from Huntington, NY

May he rest in peace. I saw him conduct many times. No matter which ensemble he conducted, every concert was a real event.

Apr. 15 2013 04:40 PM
ann hodgkins from denville,nj

RIP Sir Colin Davis.
Have always enjoyed any music he conducted.
May he be remembered with joy.

Apr. 15 2013 12:59 PM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

May he rest in peace.
I agree that it does seem that conductors, for the most part, live longer and more actively than most people. Perhaps it is because conducting involves so much upper body movement, it is probably very heart-healthy; and I am sure that doing a job you love and being so involved in producing beautiful music has much to do with it as well.

Apr. 15 2013 11:51 AM
Harry Orzello from 18643 PA


May God bless Colin Davis. No disrespect but has anyone noticed - barring accidents - orchestra conductors seem to live longer than most.
I wonder if its being in constant proxcimity to the music for most of their lives. Maybe the long exposure to vibrations has a positive physiological effect on the human body. (sorry -can't spell)

Apr. 15 2013 09:49 AM

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