STOP RUSHING AND START LISTENING: SIR COLIN SPEAKS OUT
It’s slightly disconcerting to interview a great conductor while sitting beside a skeleton. It hangs in a corner of Sir Colin Davis’s Georgian music room, the skull decorated by pieces of shiny paper, like a Christmas tree. “It’s a reminder,” Davis glowers.
Perhaps it is no wonder if Davis feels himself haunted and his time limited. He celebrates his 85th birthday later this year. His wife, Shamsi, who was a leading advocate and teacher of the Alexander Technique, died in 2010 in a north London hospice while he was conducting a performance at Covent Garden; the loss has been a heavy blow to him. But he shows no sign of abandoning his musical vocation: this spring, besides giving a concert performance of Weber’s operatic masterpiece Der Freischütz with the LSO, of which he is President, he is due to appear at the Incorporated Society of Musicians conference in an April event dedicated to his life and work.
“I don’t have the energy I used to,” he insists. “Performing a big piece really takes it out of me now – afterwards one feels one ought to be put out to grass, like an old donkey. I’ve given myself the task of reading the whole of Shakespeare once again. I did it before because I thought I might die. But I’m quite sure I’m going to this time, so I’d better hurry up.”
Yet behind this somewhat doom-laden facade, he’s lost little of his sparkle and none of his ferocious devotion to music. I’ve arrived at his doorstep armed with a plethora of questions about how he sees the future of classical music, but it is the state of the present that really works him up, especially the domination of the music world by those who, in his opinion, misunderstand what music is all about, or don’t understand it at all. And, naturally, the future depends on the present.
Reports of the death of classical music and the decline of audiences are very much exaggerated, in his view. “All I know is that the orchestra I work with is very much alive,” he declares. “It has good audiences, interesting performers, soloists and conductors, and it seems to be all right. But things are not usually what they seem, so one wonders. There have been, in my lifetime, three or four suggestions that we only need two point seven orchestras in London, or something utterly ridiculous like that – rather like having three point five babies. Statistics are stupid; they sometimes have no foundation in fact. We shouldn’t start really worrying about that unless people don’t want to hear music any more, and I don’t think that’s the case. A mass of people have never been interested in music anyway, and those that are are stubbornly in favour of it. It’s such an interesting invention that it’s always going to attract the more curious and the more emotional individuals.
“The youth orchestras have never been so well attended,” he adds, “nor have they ever played so well. That goes for the symphony orchestras, too – the standard is incredibly high now and it won’t be because of that that things fail. The promise of new musicians and people perpetually coming into the profession keeps the standard up and the accusation that only old people go in for it is absolute nonsense.”
But then we come to something that for a conductor whose fans adore his Mozart (he recently did Così fan tutte at Covent Garden) can’t help but be a major issue: the domination of 18th century repertoire by period-instrument ensembles and specialists in “historically informed performance” which has had the unfortunate side-effect of scaring symphony orchestras away from classical music’s ultimate core repertoire of Bach, Handel, Haydn and Mozart - and often beyond.
Davis, of course, has refused to be intimidated. It’s intriguing to find that one of the finest musicians of our day has no time whatsoever for this dominant trend.
“I think they just hijacked that repertory to give themselves something to do and something new to do with it,” he insists. “The way they play Baroque music is unspeakable. It’s entirely theoretical. Most of them don’t play it because it’s deeply moving – they play it to grind out their theories about bows and gut strings and old instruments, and about how you have to phrase it this way or that way. Music isn’t like that, is it? At least, I don’t think it is. A great composer, especially someone like Mozart, does not fit into that. We’re not alive then - what music means to us now is probably different, in a limited way.”
Focusing on academic correctness in minute details of phrasing and articulation, he adds, means that too often the deeper meaning of the music is ignored. “The articulation comes from the line you happen to be expressing. Of course it’s about expressing. When you get married you don’t go to the public library to look up what’s going to happen! It’s so stupid – especially in music which is so alive, such a living thing when people play it.”
“There’s Roger Norrington, who plays Berlioz’s Requiem without any vibrato – it must be a foretaste of purgatory. And John Eliot Gardiner can be very horribly theoretical about things. People may say ‘well, they didn’t play it with vibrato’. Perhaps not – but perhaps if they had, they would have preferred it!
"Playing without vibrato is one of the musical colours available in romantic music – if you play something without vibrato sometimes it can give something a most unnerving effect. But to set out to play all these vocal melodies without vibrato – it doesn’t accord with so much of what was written. Geminiani [Francesco Geminiani, composer and violinist, 1687-1762] wrote that you should play the violin as if it was the most beautiful voice you’ve ever heard. I’ve never heard a voice sing in squeegee phrasing, with no vibrato. I’ve been to performances where the instrumentalists played like that, but of course nobody sang like that – because you can’t! So it doesn’t make any sense.I suspect some of these musicians are emotionally retarded. They’re afraid to let go.”
His own mentors included Sir Thomas Beecham, who invited him to work at Glyndebourne with him on Mozart, something that helped to establish the young Davis as a leading Mozartian. He was much influenced, too, by musicians such as the Amadeus String Quartet – “We had a great number of Jewish refugees, particularly from Vienna, and they taught us a very great deal. They had tremendous discipline. But it was also an emotional matter. I’ve heard Beethoven quartets played sort of a la baroque, very fast – it’s utterly meaningless. What’s the point of that music? If you go too fast you can’t understand it anyway. It’s barmy. But people forget that when I was a young man, there was this early music thing, but it didn’t have the hold on things that it does now.
“People like Robert Donington, Thurston Dart and George Malcolm played old instruments when they felt like it, but it wasn’t obligatory. I don’t know what it is that seduces human beings in such a way. It’s arid, in the end. I’ve heard Bach especially mangled, as though he has no emotional content, as though his harmonies aren’t the most weird things. And it’s all just swept through. It’s no good at all.They don't listen to the music.
“That’s another wretched business: the metronome marks. The academic freaks treat them as holy numbers. That was brought home to me by Stravinsky. We did Oedipus Rex when I was a young man, at Sadler’s Wells, and he came to a performance. He said to me, “Why did you go so slowly in Jocasta’s aria?” and I said, “Mr Stravinsky, I was just trying to do the metronome mark”. He responded: “ My dear boy, the metronome mark is only a beginning!” A lot of great music doesn’t have any metronome marks, so people are afraid of playing it – they’ll have to sit and puzzle over what they think it should sound like. I don’t find any problem with that. If you listen to the music it will tell you how it wants to go. But if you impose on it from the beginning, the poor thing’s in a straitjacket – you’re not discovering anything about it, you’re just saying ‘do that’. That’s daft – because music is one of the few things left where we have any freedom.”
How, then, can we ensure a strong future for classical music? “There are some relatively simple things – for instance, making sure every child is musically literate,” says Davis, “as the Hungarians used to. It’s a fantastic thing – and it could be done, if anybody had any imagination . These dull, dismal politicians who are encased in Plaster of Paris - they don’t listen to anybody, they don’t really entertain new ideas. They just juggle the old ones. And the famous Lady Thatcher took away money from schools for employing peripatetic music teachers because she didn’t think music was very useful. She was just a materialist, and that’s what they all are. But the LSO do what they can, and so do the other London orchestras, taking their instruments round to the schools, trying to get the kids interested. It’s a lovely job.”
What does he think of El Sistema, the now fabled music education system from Venezuela that has transformed many deprived children’s lives with instrumental lessons? “It’s nothing new,” he insists. “We’ve always said that the way to keep difficult youngsters out of mischief is to give them enough to do. And music is one of the most wonderful ways of doing that.”
“The other thing that irritates me is ‘elitism’ accusations against classical music. Most of those wonderful composers came out of nowhere. Dvorak was a butcher as well as a viola player – they go very well together, don’t they?” (Viola players are, as ever, the butt of most orchestral jokes.) “Martinu was a wheelwright. Elgar and Berlioz were both largely self-taught. Mozart was the son of an indifferent court fiddler. Beethoven came from a drunken family. Look at them. None of them were from the aristocracy – except Gesualdo. And he got into trouble for running through his wife and her lover with a sword.”
“I think the most important thing is that people just get back to playing musical instruments. On the great days of the calendar my family turns up and we play chamber music. That’s great.” He has five children: two are professional musicians and all of them play instruments. “Of course the best pieces of chamber music are extremely difficult, so we’re still struggling with them. But that’s where freedom really begins. Take a violin soloist like Nikolai Znaider – he can play the violin and he doesn’t have to worry about technique, so he can think about the music. The same with orchestras: when they’re very good, they’re not disturbed by technical problems. They just need an hour or two. When we started to play those Nielsen symphonies – I’ve never seen anything so difficult in all my life! The LSO’s eyes popped out when they saw it. But they sat down together and practised it.”
You might imagine that a senior conductor who took a slow, steady path towards the top of his profession might be sceptical about the speed with which young conductors today become established – but Davis applauds the new generation with enthusiasm. “I think it’s great,” he insists. Doesn’t he think they do too much, too young? “If they do, they’ll find out later,” he quips. “The one I know best is Robin Ticciati. He’s coming over to dinner and we’re going to cook spaghetti – then we’ll find out what he’s really like! It’s important to do human things, to take time away from music.”
That is his main advice to young conductors: “Some conductors, it’s true, fly from place to place, but they don’t give them time to think about anything and I don’t think that develops a person very much. It’s much better to take three weeks off, get a pile of books and read them. Things used to be like that – it wasn’t any better, but it was a little livelier.” There’s no need for conductors to be in such a hurry in career terms: “Fill your mind as much as you possibly can with anything else. Where are you going to get new ideas from if you don’t read? Music doesn’t feed itself.”