Briton takes up the baton of Elgar and Beecham: David Lister reviews the career of Sir Colin Davis, who is poised to become the first British-born principal conductor of the LSO for 74 years

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The Independent Online
SIR COLIN DAVIS is on record as saying that he never wanted a permanent job with an orchestra again - the politics were too tiring.

That was last year, after he completed a nine-year stint as chief conductor at the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich.

London orchestra politics can certainly rival Munich, but that has not stopped Sir Colin from accepting the job of principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra.

Dubbed 'the super-orchestra' by the Arts Council chairman Lord Palumbo, it is generously funded by both the council and the City of London to afford some of the best musicians around, and enjoying enormous success as the resident orchestra at the Barbican Centre.

Sir Colin, 65, who as a guest conductor has had a 35-year association with the orchestra, was named this week as the only British-born Principal Conductor to be appointed in 74 years, and only the third after Sir Edward Elgar and Sir Thomas Beecham. The non-British contingent has included Previn, Abbado and the current postholder, Michael Tilson Thomas.

The LSO has been associated with a degree of razzmatazz at the Barbican Hall, particularly with Tilson Thomas's popular Gershwin and Bernstein evenings. Sir Colin's regime, which begins in 1995, will bring a different approach: 'Michael brought a whole new aspect of making music with Gershwin evenings etc. It was extremely stimulating. I would like to do more British music. I suppose I'm a more conservative kind of character, but that's to deny my past in which I was always involved in contemporary music. At the BBC I did a lot of infernally difficult pieces. I would still like to do new pieces, but I haven't got a lot of time left, so I don't want to waste my time being fashionable.'

Sir Colin, whose musical career started as a clarinettist in a National Service military band, has already conducted the LSO in three world premieres of major works by Sir Michael Tippett. But his work with British composers only constitutes a small part of his acclaim - last year he won plaudits for the LSO Sibelius cycle.

As music director of the Royal Opera from 1971 to 1986 (where he introduced and championed the cheap ticket proms performances) he conducted many new productions; he was the first British conductor to appear at Bayreuth, was music director at both Sadler's Wells Opera (now the ENO) and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

A well-known interpreter of Berlioz, he will be conducting the LSO in December in three complete concert performances of Berlioz's The Trojans. The new approach, though, will not just be in the choice of music. Sir Colin, who throughout his career made efforts not to neglect his home life, is no lover of conductor charisma, which tries to turn the person on the podium into a superstar. Some observers have wondered if there is any psychological insight to be gleaned from this quiet home-loving type championing an extrovert like Berlioz. 'You have to ask yourself what you want to be. Do you want to be a serious artist or to attract as much interest as possible? It's a very tempting world. There's a great deal of power and money to be made, and the music can easily take second place. So I don't seek to increase my prime time.'

Asked who had succumbed, he replied: 'I hardly meet my colleagues.' But Sir Colin's whimsy disguises a number of serious messages. He laments the lack of idealism today, and sees a distinct link between this and music. 'After the war, when I was a young man, there was a pretty heady idealism and Britain prospered because of it,' he said. 'Now it's quite difficult to be an idealist in this age. There's a lust for destruction in human beings and we haven't got the idealism to counteract it. What is horrible is that there's a kind of spiritual bankruptcy. Money rules the show all over the world. Now we're searching for something to live for and I think music is one of the great powerful causes for good.'

In going for an established figure the LSO would appear to be offering an interesting challenge to its rival resident orchestra, the London Philharmonic at the Royal Festival Hall, which has employed a young and still not wholly proven Austrian, Franz Welser-Most.

(Photograph omitted)

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