The Chaos Imperative: It's almost 30 years since Colin Davis was rebuffed by members of the LSO. Now, after holding a string of other top jobs, he is to be their Principal Conductor. He gave Michael White a candid interview.

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
A SKELETON hangs in the window of Sir Colin Davis's London house, taking a passive interest in the life of Highbury Fields outside. Next to it sits Davis himself, brooding and biting his pipe and maybe smirking (or maybe it's the way he holds the pipe between his teeth) as he talks about 'finishing up' and 'the satisfaction of coming home for one's final years'. He takes out the pipe (yes, it's a smirk) and waits for me to protest. 'Final years?' I say, on cue. 'You can't be serious.'

'Oh, I am,' says Davis. 'Certainly. These are my last manoeuvres with an orchestra . . . But you don't look at all convinced.'

I'm not. Davis is 66, which isn't that old for a conductor. He is in full command of his powers, as you will know if you heard the remarkable Sibelius cycle he did with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican last year. Next month he conducts the LSO again in Berlioz's monumental opera-score The Trojans (see offer, overleaf). And he has just signed on the dotted line for a new job as the LSO's Principal Conductor in succession to Michael Tilson Thomas, starting in 1995. There is no reason for him to be brooding on mortality or playing Prospero. This is not a man about to break his staff and drown his book.

But valediction has long been a feature of Colin Davis's life, or at any rate his interviews. In 1967, aged 40, he tells the Daily Express that having taken over the BBC Symphony Orchestra he has only one big event left to face: a respectable death. In 1973, aged 45, he tells the London Evening Standard that he's not so young as he was and is cutting down his concerts accordingly. In 1986 he tells the Times that 'there's a difference between being 45 and being 60 . . . at 60 I'm in the home straight'. And so it goes on, a rondo theme of advancing age, decline and retreat which, if it were true, would have swept him into sheltered housing before now.

The truth is that Colin Davis is one of the most revered and authoritative conductors on the international circuit. It's a cliche of concert programme biographies that artists are 'in demand'; but Davis genuinely is, and at the time when the LSO made its approach there were other orchestras of equal stature wooing him. He chose the LSO because he knew the orchestra so well: he has been conducting it as a guest for some 35 years. Reciprocally, the LSO chose him with 35 years' inherited knowledge of how he works - and his method is very different from the dynamic, transatlantic glamour of Tilson Thomas. Davis is more the philosopher conductor: thoughtful, bookish, sober. Musically he's a conservative who champions a few, specific areas of modern music. He will forever be identified with Berlioz in the public's mind, but is otherwise steeped in the core Viennese classics: Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Brahms. These he directs in the traditional (as opposed to 'period') way, with large forces and slow speeds.

As a personality he can be abrasive, but in an earnest, almost spiritual manner. Where some conductors harass orchestras with their rampant egos, Davis does the same through self-denial. He has made his life an advertisement for The Better Way: how to be a conductor without being a tyrant. And the eschewing of power has been another of his rondo themes.

'I've agreed to take the LSO job on condition that I don't have any power, because power just ends up in an awful lot of situations I can do without. I don't want to decide who conducts the orchestra apart from me. I don't want to pick the players. I don't want to have to lobby the Arts Council or pursue sponsors or anything like that.'

But doesn't he want to be responsible for his own players?

'Certainly not. It's their orchestra, and they can run it. I can say it's not good enough, if that's the case; but it's not my responsibility. The minute you get into a position of power vis-a-vis your players, they're not free to play any more. I've been reading about the theory of Chaos, and I'm pleased to find that chaologists or whatever they call themselves entirely agree with me: that hierarchical thinking is a catastrophe. I don't like authority - my own or anyone else's. And the pursuit of power - well, you've seen it. You've grown up with Ma Thatcher and the dismantling of all the ideals that were current before you were born, after the Second World War. Power and money. That's what people want today. But I don't'

Surely, though, someone has to be the maestro - the ultimate arbiter of what and how 90 orchestral musicians are going to play?

'I don't have to say: 'Do this.' I can say: 'Shall we do it?' '

And if the second trombone refuses?

'I can say: 'You don't have to stay here'.'

But is that any different from saying: 'Do this'?

'Yes it is, because he won't go. There's a consensus in an orchestra. In that sense, it's a game . . . You don't believe a word I'm saying, do you?'

Believe it or not, Davis has had no shortage of powerful positions. Over a quarter of a century he ran three of the most important musical institutions in Britain - as chief conductor of Sadler's Wells Opera (later to metamorphose into English National Opera), then chief of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, then Music Director of the Royal Opera - before shifting his focus to Germany where for the past decade he has been in charge of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich.

So he has always had weight to throw around if he chose to; and in the early years he did. During the Fifties and Sixties, he had a reputation for what he admits was a 'demon temper'; and it soured his chances at the time for getting the job he is now, 30 years on, about to take. In 1965 the LSO was looking for a successor to Pierre Monteux. Davis was widely tipped as the favourite. But the players voted overwhelmingly against him. 'We swore at each other quite a bit in those days,' Davis recalls. 'They didn't like my personality, and I was in a fine old state myself. It was a crisis point in my life, and things had been tough - as they are tough for a young conductor when you're starting out. Now I've got white hair it's not the same problem. You know that verse by Yeats: 'Much did I rage when young, being by the world oppressed'? Well, I did my share of raging.'

But if Davis was ever really oppressed it was more by his own personality, and his own initial limitations, than by the world. He was born in 1927 into a lower-middle-class family - his father was a bank clerk - and slipped up several social notches when a wealthy uncle provided the means for him to go to public school: Christ's Hospital in Sussex. There, he had a road- to-Damascus experience with Beethoven's Eighth Symphony and resolved to become a conductor. But, at 13, he was a comparatively late starter, and he never made the grade as a pianist. So although he got a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, he wasn't allowed to join the conducting class. Instead he concentrated on the clarinet, did his National Service as a military bandsman, and then taught himself to conduct, experimenting with an ad hoc chamber ensemble called the Kalmus Orchestra which rehearsed in private flats and basements.

From there he graduated to the Chelsea Opera Group, which was (and remains) one of those stalwart semi-professional ventures that form the grass-roots of English music. Chelsea Opera was where he first shone in Mozart, the composer who stands at the very centre of Davis's career and affections. Above all, he admires Mozart's rationality. No one, he will tell you, has to die for love in The Marriage of Figaro (although amour, as Davis calls it, is essential to Mozartian style and something he finds missing in most period-style performances).

Davis is planning a glut of Mozart for when he takes over the LSO - a gauntlet thrown down to the period performance lobby. It will also be a challenge to the Arts Council: an organisation whose fondness for the LSO (the only one of the big four London orchestras not threatened by a withdrawal of funding) does not earn it any returned affection from the LSO's Principal Conductor designate. In fact, you only have to mention the words 'Arts Council' for his face to crease with anger.

'I despair of them. They don't know what they're doing. And in their ignorance they're now dictating who can play what repertory. I've just seen a letter that the Arts Council sent to the ECO (the English Chamber Orchestra, with whom Davis has had a long professional relationship), and it says that if the ECO want funding to go on playing composers like Telemann, they've got to ditch their instruments and get some 'period' hardware. The letter talks about 'historically informed performance'] To the ECO] I've never heard such nonsense in all my life. What next? You know, I'm thinking of going to the Arts Council and asking for money to start a castrato foundation. There don't seem to be many castratos about these days; and if the Arts Council expects us all to be 'authentic' - well, it had better make provision, hadn't it?'

This small explosion is delivered through one corner of Davis's mouth. The other corner has the pipe. Much-gnawed.

'I suppose they'll be coming to me next and telling me I'm not 'historically informed' when I play Mozart with the LSO - and if they were consistent they ought to. Why should the LSO get away with what the ECO can't? Do you think that's right? No, I don't either. If this is what's happened to English music while I've been away in Germany, I want none of it.'

Mozart was Davis's first great love, and also provided him with his first big break. In 1959, he stepped in from almost nowhere, at almost no notice, to conduct a performance of Don Giovanni at the Festival Hall when Otto Klemperer cancelled on account of illness. The cast was high-profile, featuring Joan Sutherland and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. The critics were out in force. And Davis triumphed, very publicly. Acclaimed in the reviews as a natural successor to Sir Thomas Beecham, he was quickly appointed to Sadler's Wells, and held the music director's job there for the next five years.

At the same time he was gathering an impressive roster of guest appearances with other orchestras at home and abroad. Then in the mid-Sixties came the crisis, when he was so widely considered the obvious candidate for the LSO and so pointedly turned down by its players. His first marriage, to the singer April Cantelo, disintegrated: 'and I came to the conclusion that I had to change my life, because I didn't like the way I was - this furious young man with the unbridled temper - and I realised that everything I'd done had been for the wrong reasons. I started to read; and one of the books was Broch's Death of Virgil, where Virgil lies dying and wonders why he's spent his life writing verses when he should have been doing something useful. It made me question why the hell I was doing anything. But it's not easy to change. I got myself a new family (and a total of seven children, five from his second marriage, to Ashraf Naini). That helped. But I ended up doing battle with myself for many years.'

The first battle, in 1967, was the BBC Symphony Orchestra, a job that requires conductors to take up the cross (and limited box office) of contemporary British music. Davis had his favourites (Tippett, Britten) and his blind spots (Peter Maxwell Davies), with a bias towards 'softer' figures that made his four years at the BBC less rigorously memorable than those of his successor, Pierre Boulez. But they were memorable years, and they are remembered with affection. He managed to be popular with audiences and still retain the stature of a 'serious' musician; and by the end of his tenure he found himself offered a choice between two of the world's most prestigious conducting appointments: the Boston Symphony and Covent Garden.

He chose the tougher option, Covent Garden. And although he survived in office for 15 years, from 1971 to 1986, there can be no doubt that it was tough - a period when Davis's reputation veered crazily between peaks of critical acclaim and troughs of booing from the gallery. Predictably, he excelled in Mozart, Berlioz and Tippett; but not in the core Italian repertory of Verdi and Puccini. He knuckled down to Wagner - there was a major Ring cycle, and he was the first British conductor to be invited to Bayreuth - but with variable results. And it took a long while for his new-found mildness to win the respect of an orchestra that had spent the previous decade under Georg Solti (known to his players as 'the screaming skull'). Davis, by contrast, seemed too self-effacing; and too anxious to attract visiting star conductors by offering them the new productions that music directors of opera houses usually keep for themselves. When he left in 1986 (on the low note of a disastrous new Fidelio) to go to Munich, which remained his professional base until last year, it seemed like a withdrawal from the fray.

'Yes, it was turbulent,' he says now, 'but it was sometimes wonderful as well. And of course everyone knew better than I did how to do the job. I was too this, too that: they all criticised me for what I wanted to be - or, more particularly, not to be - and I could only answer them: 'Well, maybe then I shouldn't be here.' '

But before he went, Davis did, unquestionably, improve the standard of the Covent Garden orchestra - not least because he brought it a recording profile. There was no studio work under Solti, because he preferred to record with the Vienna Philharmonic. But Davis incorporated the orchestra into his long relationship with Philips; and looking back, it's probably true to say that the classic Philips discs he made during the Sixties and Seventies stand as the definitive achievement of his career.

These include the debut recordings of Tippett's operas The Midsummer Marriage and The Knot Garden - recordings which bear witness to the uncommonly close personal as well as musical relationship between conductor and composer. Davis has a portrait of Tippett in his sitting room - not far from the skeleton - and a companion portrait of himself looking, it has to be said, a lot younger. Davis says that Tippett is the closest thing to genius he has ever encountered. Tippett dedicated to Davis his penultimate opera, The Ice Break. Both men have a tendency to deep but vague philosophising. You can understand what they find in each other.

But in retrospect, the absolute pinnacle of Davis's recorded output has to be his complete Berlioz cycle, set down during the Sixties and Seventies, and one of the supreme achievements of the modern record industry. Why Berlioz?

'Well, I never singled him out. He isn't more special to me than Mozart. Or Vaughan Williams for that matter. But there was something to be done about Berlioz: so much was written about him but no one actually knew the pieces. Especially not the huge ones that for obvious reasons get played so rarely. Of course, their invention is uneven: Berlioz has a wild imagination that none the less sometimes verges on the banal. But you could say the same of Wagner or Beethoven. It's not unusual for an artist to touch the brink of the abyss and occasionally topple over.

'The other thing I like about him is that for all that torrent of romanticism - and he's probably the only genuine romantic of them all - he is a classical composer in his frame of mind: a tremendous innovator, but totally immersed in the past. You only have to look at The Trojans to know that.'

The Trojans is Berlioz's grandest, perhaps greatest work: an epic opera conceived on such a scale that it never had a complete performance in Berlioz's lifetime and tends to be done now, if at all, in two halves. No definitive score was published until 1969, the centenary of the composer's death, and it was then that Davis made his famous recording: the ne plus ultra of his whole Berlioz project.

Next month at the Barbican he conducts it again, for the first time in 20 years. It will be a straight concert performance with no attempt at staging, 'which is how I think I prefer it: the inner imagination is better able to supply the spectacle you need for Berlioz than any stage director'. Even without sets and costumes it will be a massive undertaking: played complete (including the ballet numbers left out when the piece was staged for the opening of the Bastille opera house in Paris), and spread across two nights. The orchestra will be the LSO; and the event will be interpreted as an advance statement of how things are likely to be under Davis's Barbican regime.

Not that there is anything approximating to a Colin Davis sound that he carries with him from orchestra to orchestra. Tyrants have a sound. Davis, remember, is a liberator: a man who talks to players like psychiatrists talk to patients. But he does have a style of musicianship which, he says, is 'recognisable, I think'. It's just that it has as much to do with ethics as with balance, tempi and dynamics.

'Making music is an ethical activity: it requires you to to work with other people for an idealistic result. And it's an adjunct to civilised existence, because it promotes a vision of order, of how it's possible to co-operate. I dream of the day when someone will make music a compulsory activity, and then there won't be time to rob old women and murder people in the street. Musicians are awful people, but they're not terrorists.'

Just, occasionally, tyrants?

'Yes, but it doesn't have to be so, and it won't be like that with the LSO. I'm going to be myself, and if they don't like it they can throw me out. But why do they want me in the first place? Because I've been around a long while and I'm still here. Aggravating, isn't it? For all my perverse thinking, I'm still employed.'

A bite-sized smirk shoots down the pipe stem.

'It's a scandal.' -

(Photographs omitted)