Will anyone be able to follow Sir Colin Davis?

Sir Colin Davis died this week. Miranda Kiek asks what made him great, and looks at the young conductors hoping to match his mighty example

By the time of his death Sir Colin Davis had served as chief conductor of the British Symphony Orchestra; music director of the Royal Opera House; the principal guest conductor of both the Bavarian Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic; the only ever conductor laureate of the Dresden Staatskapelle; and, of course, the principal conductor and the president of the London Symphony Orchestra. He is acknowledged to be one of the most significant conductors of his generation and, as the laudatory outpouring following his death has made abundantly apparent, those who knew him seemed to have loved the man as much as they revered the musician.

So what was Davis's secret? What can a young conductor learn from him? According to Andrew Marriner, the London Symphony Orchestra's principal clarinettist, alongside his passion for the pieces he chose to conduct, it was Davis's ability to render the act of musical creation, “entirely collaborative” that marked him out. “While you always understood who was in charge, he had this knack of making you feel like you were the person who was allowed to make the music. You find occasionally people want to play your instrument for you… it was a real treat to know that you could be part of the process as well.”

Davis, then, was no selfish maestro: “His extraordinary insight into the music transferred itself to you… that was the trick – he made you a better player.”

The next generation

Ryan Wigglesworth

Wigglesworth, 34, has conducted some of England's key orchestras – including the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the London Philharmonic. A recording of Birtwistle's orchestral works with the Hallé netted him the accolade of Time Out New York's disc of the year. The Independent praised his interpretation of Carmen for being as “mesmerising” as Bizet's melodies.

Daniel Harding

Harding is living proof of how a decibel of audacity can crescendo into a deafening success. Twenty years ago an excessively youthful Harding, now 38, sent a tape of himself conducting Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire to Sir Simon Rattle and, as a consequence, he was summoned by Rattle to act as his assistant at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Harding managed to have conducted the Berlin Philharmonic by the tender age of 21 and in 1996 he became the youngest-ever conductor to appear at the Proms. Harding is currently the principal conductor of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Robin Ticciati

Ticciati, 30, became the principal conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra five years ago when he was only 26. Like Harding, he counts Rattle as one of his mentors. Clearly his influence extends beyond the musical – Ticciati boasts a head of curls to rival the maestro's own.

Nicholas Collon

Another curly-haired young conductor, Collon, 30, was friends with Ticciati at Cambridge University. Together they founded the highly successful Aurora Orchestra – a musical enterprise for which Collon still acts as principal conductor.

Jessica Cottis

Her name may ring bells thanks to her appearance as DJ Trevor Nelson's mentor in the BBC series Maestro at the Opera. Cottis, 34, is the sole female on this list of young conductors, and also the only one not to have attended either Oxford or Cambridge. This trend-breaking tendency is reflected in her musical repertoire – she is becoming increasingly well-known as a conductor of new and contemporary music.

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