Working with Sir Colin: A tribute by David Syrus
Royal Opera House Head of Music pays tribute to Colin Davis, his 'most stimulating professional teacher'.
Colin Davis and Gotz Friedrich during rehearsals for the Ring cycle © 1975 ROH /Donald Southern Collection
On the day Colin started as Musical Director here I started as a fledgling répétiteur. He was my first and most stimulating professional teacher, and I still am constantly referring back to what he taught me, more than four decades on.
He believed every language could be sung with line, and he set up a powerful collaboration with Ubaldo Gardini, the language coach for our Italian repertory, while welcoming back into the working life of Covent Garden Reginald Goodall (marginalized in the Solti years) to advise him on his first Ring cycle with Götz Friedrich. In those rehearsals it was Götz who talked music, Colin who talked text, the ideal Wagnerian synthesis! But language was absolutely central to Colin; more than any conductor I’ve ever known he found the rhetoric in accompanied recitative, which gave his Mozart a thrilling muscular quality and energized his Berlioz (not to mention the first two chords of the ‘Eroica’!).
He was heroic, searching, spiritual in the great pieces – Fidelio, Tristan, Grimes – and how central to his quest was Jon Vickers in all three operas! – but he could also take a second-rank piece and make you believe it was a masterpiece. (Vickers again, in Samson et Dalila, for instance.)
Most of all, though, he taught us humility – towards the works themselves and towards colleagues. He was staggeringly erudite, but he never flaunted his knowledge, he was very funny, always ready for good exchange of ideas (though if it was about appoggiaturas, you’d run up against a brick wall eventually!). His technique was formidable. If something went wrong in rehearsal he’d refuse to talk about it; we’d play it again and with a flick of the wrist he’d solved the problem.
If you offered him a new ‘take’ on a piece of phrasing he’d try to use it. I’m thinking of those long staging sessions where at the piano you get the chance to experiment, so often do sections get repeated. If you chanced on some tiny new nuance and he liked it he’d smile quietly and almost certainly incorporate it into his vision next time round. He made you feel valued. For him the word ‘maestro’ was an ironic term; it was banned in his company.
The modesty and humanity of the man drove all his music-making. We all heard it, we tried (in vain!) to analyse it, and we loved him for it. We all have favourite memories – I still hear especially the radiance of his Tippett, the sprung step of his Stravinsky. But maybe it was in irreverent but life-loving Mozart that he found his most perfect musical soulmate.
Colin was the first British conductor to conduct at Bayreuth. He took me there as an assistant, an act of great generosity, followed by many other trips abroad together on recordings and productions. He was relaxed and enabling in the recording studio, and it was good fortune that his best years coincided with the heyday of the recording industry. Those glorious performances remain to us: Hänsel und Gretel, Les Troyens, The Knot Garden. Let’s remember him with those, and see again this kindly, generous man smiling at us.
David Syrus is Head of Music for the Royal Opera House in London, where he has worked since 1971.