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The nice thing about being old, confides Sir Colin Davis, “is that you no longer have any interest in confrontation. You just want people to enjoy what they do, and my little crusade is to help that. These musicians have devoted their lives to playing the notes, and you’ve got to give them a reason to let loose their energy.”
We’re sitting in a walled garden in north London. Davis’s wife Shamsi brings a bottle of wine. One of their daughters has her nose in a book. Davis, 80 today, is at home and at ease. The man who has garnered more honours and titles than any other British musician suddenly finds himself with no responsibilities.
But Davis is in no mood to retire from the conductor’s podium. This week he returns to the London Symphony Orchestra for a fortnight of concerts embracing Beethoven’s Eroica, Mozart’s Requiem and Haydn’s The Creation. Next month he starts a new Figaro at the Royal Academy of Music. He then visits Boston, New York and Dresden, before returning to the LSO to conduct a new piece by James MacMillan.
A world premiere? That’s a lot for an 80-year-old to take on, I venture. “Don’t you think it’s important to do something new even when you’re on the verge of extinction?” he retorts with a mischievous smile. “I suppose, when I see what I’m down to do this season, I am slightly alarmed at the faith people have in my physical stamina. I’ve begun to notice that an hour and a half of standing without stopping is hard on the knees. Conductors are at the mercy of their apparatus: if you don’t have the energy you can’t do it.”
But surely it’s as much a question of mental energy? “Well, when the music begins, thank God I can’t help it: you’re invaded. Of course, you don’t flail about as you do when you’re young. You produce intensity in other ways. What actually happens is that you see an orchestra there, wanting to play the hell out of it. You have to let them do it. That’s what’s so marvellous about this profession. You have a small band of pilgrims who know that if they don’t leave their assertive personalities at the side of the stage, there’s chaos. It’s an example others should consider.”
But what about the conductor’s ego? Can that be left at the side? Davis has spent half his life addressing the problem. He quotes George Meredith, one of his favourite poets: “‘My crime is, that the puppet of a dream, I plotted to be worthy of the world.’ If you only go around with the fantasy of success, you won’t develop. I’m not taking a superior moral stance, but if you don’t take responsibility for others, you’re in danger of
thinking you’re king of the castle. You have to come home from dealing with that and deal with the facts of family life. That’s what keeps you in touch with the responsibility of existence.”
Davis speaks from experience: at 35 the fantasy of success was his. Then his first marriage broke up and he had a personal crisis. “I went back to the place I remembered as a child and talked to my mother and sisters to
try to find the creature I was before the world got at me. And then I married my present wife and we had these five children. The drives of youth – fame, wealth, success – started to fade.”
Conversing with Davis is an education – not just because he is so relaxed about sharing his wisdom, but also because he sees life as a mirror of the harmonic progressions in classical music. The “tremendous amount of argument” in the finale of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, he says, “is an image of our lives. We start off full of hope, we’re going to be great chaps, but in the development section we run into difficulties where our confidence is undermined, and we have to find our way back to where we began, reconciling our experiences with the simplicity of our origin. As in the best symphonies, the recapitulation is never the same – you’ve been through the struggle, you’ve got there, but death puts his hand on your shoulder and you know the piece is coming to an end.”
Morbid? Even at 80 Davis is still searching for meaning. “How can you go through life without noticing certain appalling contradictions?” he asks. “We live in a fantastic sexual system – otherwise nothing would die. Sex and death are what run the show, and this garden is the result of all that. We’re supposed to admire it, but because we’re half animal and half god, it gets us into terrible trouble. There’s no answer to anything. You just have to pick your way through . . . ”