Continuing with historic concerts. This week it’s the 1976 Tanglewood appearance of Sir Colin Davis, leading an all Beethoven program. Beginning with the Coriolanus Overture, followed by Symphony No. 1 and ending with Symphony No. 7.
Sir Colin Rex Davis CH CBE (25 September 1927 – 14 April 2013) was an English conductor, known for his association with the London Symphony Orchestra, having first conducted it in 1959. His repertoire was broad, but among the composers with whom he was particularly associated were Mozart, Berlioz, Elgar, Sibelius, Stravinsky and Tippett.
He studied as a clarinetist, but was intent on becoming a conductor. After struggles as a freelance conductor from 1949 to 1957, he gained a series of appointments with orchestras including the BBC Scottish Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. He also held the musical directorships of Sadler’s Wells Opera and the Royal Opera House, where he was principal conductor for over fifteen years. His guest conductorships included the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and the Dresden Staatskapelle, among many others.
As a teacher, Davis held posts at the Royal Academy of Music, London, and the Landesgymnasium für Musik “Carl Maria von Weber” (preparatory school for music) in Dresden. He made his first recordings in 1958, and his discography over the next five decades was extensive, with a large number of studio recordings for Philips Records and a substantial catalogue of live recordings for the London Symphony Orchestra’s own label.
In 1970, Sir David Webster, who ran the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet companies at Covent Garden, invited Davis to succeed Sir Georg Solti as principal conductor of the opera. At about the same time, the Boston Symphony Orchestra invited him to become its musical director, but Davis felt that if Covent Garden needed him, it was his duty to take on the post. Webster’s vision was that Davis and the stage director Sir Peter Hall, formerly of the Royal Shakespeare Company, would work in equal partnership as musical director and director of productions. After early successes together, including the première of Michael Tippett’s The Knot Garden in December 1970, Hall left to succeed Laurence Olivier as director of the National Theatre. Webster had retired by that time, leaving Davis, together with Webster’s successor as General Administrator, Sir John Tooley, to run the Royal Opera.
The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, where Davis was musical director between 1970 and 1986
Davis’ early months in charge at Covent Garden were marked by dissatisfaction among some of the audience, and booing was heard at a “disastrous” Nabucco in 1972. His conducting of Wagner’s Ring cycle was at first compared unfavourably with that of his predecessor. Among his successes were Berlioz’s massive Les Troyens (with Jon Vickers and Anja Silja) and Benvenuto Cellini, Verdi’s Falstaff, the major Mozart operas, and, as one critic put it, he “confirmed his preeminence as a Britten and Stravinsky interpreter” with productions of Peter Grimes and The Rake’s Progress. Davis conducted more than 30 operas during his fifteen-year tenure, but “since people like Maazel, Abbado and Muti would only come for new productions”, Davis yielded the baton to these foreign conductors, giving up the chance to conduct several major operas, including Der Rosenkavalier, Rigoletto and Aida.
In addition to the standard operatic repertoire, Davis conducted a number of modern and unfamiliar operas, including Tippett’s The Knot Garden and The Ice Break (of which he is the dedicatee), and Alexander Zemlinsky’s The Dwarf and Eine florentinische Tragödie. With later stage directors at Covent Garden, Davis preferred to work with those who respected the libretto: “I have a hankering for producers who don’t feel jealous of composers for being better than they are, and want to impose their, often admittedly clever, ideas on the work in hand.” Davis hoped that Götz Friedrich, with whom he worked on Wagner’s Ring cycle, would take on the role of principal producer vacated by Hall, “but it seemed that nobody wanted to commit themselves.”
During his Covent Garden tenure, Davis returned to the BBC Symphony Orchestra as principal guest conductor from 1971 to 1975, and held the same post with the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1972 to 1984. In 1977, he became the first English conductor to appear at Bayreuth, where he conducted the opening opera of the festival, Tannhäuser. Despite the Bayreuth habitués’ suspicion of newcomers, his Tannhäuser was “highly successful”. He debuted at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City, in 1967 with Peter Grimes, the Vienna State Opera in 1986 and the Bavarian State Opera in 1994.
Sit back and relax and enjoy this slice of the BSO with Sir Colin Davis at Tanglewood in 1976.