Birthday wishes for Sir Colin

A big Happy Birthday to Sir Colin Davis, who is 80 years old today.

He’s had a remarkable career, having managed to hold a major position in London almost without a break for forty-five years, going from Sadler’s Wells to the BBC to Covent Garden to the LSO.

For someone who has been so successful, it’s perhaps even more impressive that he has been so popular while remaining so stubbornly himself. The composers with whom he ha made his reputation- Berlioz, Sibelius and Tippett are even today not as popular as Mahler, Brahms and Shostakovich. Just think how much less popular they would have been without Sir Colin’s advocacy.

When I toured the IU campus as an auditioning student in 1985, the Dean pointed with embarrassment to the statue of Sibelius alongside those of Mozart and Beethoven on front of the music building. “The building was built in the 50’s, when people still thought of Sibelius as a real composer” he chuckled snidely. Can you believe I went there after that remark? And yet, in the 60’s and 70’s, when Sibelius’s music was not taken seriously at all, there was Colin Davis, performing and recording all the symphonies.

Likewise Berlioz– who was even more ignored fifty years ago. Symphony Fantastique has always been popular, but Davis dared to record EVERYTHING, and has pointedly made a case for works like Les Troyens and L’Enfance du Christ that most people thought weren’t worth looking at.  

Even in Mozart, he’s been an iconoclast. He’s stuck to his guns, following his intellect and intuition in pursuing his own approach to Mozart’s music, steadfastly refusing to be bullied into compliance by the Birkenstock crowd. I don’t always like his Mozart, but I admire his scholarship, his intensity and his courage.

And, if I had to pick one recorded performance to celebrate his birthday with, it would be the excellent video of him doing the Mozart Requiem in Munich. In his hands, the piece sounds like an existential struggle between life and death, which is exactly what it should sound like.


c. 2007 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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