Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra open Lincoln Center's Great Performers series on October 17, several weeks after the maestro's 80th birthday. He'll be conducting three programs of favorite works by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.
Asked about his approaching octogenarian status, Sir Colin, with his characteristic dark humor, answers, "It feels extraordinarily mortal." Yet anyone who witnesses his boundless energy on the podium hears something divine.
Davis has recently completed 11 years as principal conductor of the LSO, during which time he has put out an extraordinary series of LSO Live recordings (including the award-winning The Trojans and the recently released L'Enfance du Christ, both by Berlioz). Valery Gergiev has succeeded him as principal conductor, yet Davis asserts, "I'm working just as hard as I was before, which is very nice for me."
Known for his sensitive Mozart interpretations, Davis leads the composer's last composition, the Requiem.
"Mozart has always been for me the God of Music," says Davis in a phone call from London. "I've just come home from a rehearsal of Cosí fan tutte, and there's no reason to depose him. He keeps up a spin of invention that is not to be believed. As far as the Requiem is concerned, when it comes to someone like Mozart who turns his attention to death, you'd be a damn fool if you didn't listen."
The intense mass, which practically has blood on the page since Mozart died in the throes of composing it, bristles with dramatic and violent gestures juxtaposed with more contemplative statements.
"I'm not a Catholic, or believer in life after death," says Davis, "but when my shining men — Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Berlioz, and Verdi — talk about death, I believe in every word and every note. I will never get to the bottom of the Requiem, but I do try like hell." Prepare to be scorched and transported by Davis, who conducts the London Symphony Chorus with soloists soprano Marie Arnet, mezzo Anna Stéphany, tenor Andrew Kennedy, and bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams.
The other piece on the program is the Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major — "a very strange piece," according to Davis — with soloist Imogen Cooper. "It doesn't have many notes and appears to be very simple," muses Davis. "But because of Mozart's sophistication, the music does some very strange things. To try to incorporate these oddities in this apparently simple piece is quite a problem." Davis places Cooper alongside Mitsuko Uchida and Radu Lupu as a "tremendous Mozartean."
If death hovers in the late Mozart program, the life force bursts forth throughout the October 21 Haydn program with a performance of Die Schöpfung ("The Creation"), the Genesis-based, cosmological oratorio written seven years after Mozart's death when Haydn, though in his autumnal years, was in creative full-throttle.
"It's one of the pillars of the classical repertoire," says Davis of Die Schöpfung. "Haydn is in his old age actually enjoying himself, in a very free and expansive way. Of course, he believed in it, he was a very devout man. But at the same time he's a great entertainer — just listen to the animal procession or 'Let there be light!' And that extraordinary depiction of Chaos is one of the great oddities of classical music."
How did Haydn come up with that remarkable musical image of primordial disorder, which begins his piece?
"Well, he's a man of great imagination, with all the technique in the world," says Davis. "He was a free man and did what he liked — and that's the great advantage of being 80 or less." The maestro has insider's knowledge for sure, so expect a memorable performance. Ian Bostridge, Sally Matthews, and Dietrich Henschel will be the soloists.
If Haydn was free, Beethoven was even freer. Davis's October 19 program features the Piano Concerto No. 4 and Symphony No. 3.
"They are the very, very, very best of that extraordinary man," observes Davis. "He never exceeded his achievement in the "Eroica." And the Fourth Piano Concerto was a complete break with the classicizing of the first three piano concertos. We're in another world. It's full of imagination, contrasts, and ideas that we haven't come across before. We will try to live up to our admiration of two of the greatest pieces Beethoven wrote." Paul Lewis will be the soloist.
With such masterpieces, it's not so much a question of keeping them fresh — they remain fresh after all these years, what with their harmonic surprises, daring formal trajectories, and dramatically imagined orchestration.
"I'm allowing the music to speak for itself," says Davis. "Those men who say, 'Well, we've got to do something new,' they are like the operatic producers who say we have to do something new, and what they do is destroy the opera. We don't want to destroy this symphony. We want to play it simply the way it is with all the energy we have, and all the joy of the discovery of what it is."
While a strong musical personality, with a mane of white hair and youthful pink cheeks, Davis is actually quite humble before the great creators, and is not interested in dealing flashy "look at me" interpretations. What he's learned during his four score years is "to keep out of the way."
"Don't get in the way just because your ego demands attention," Davis philosophizes. "That doesn't justify getting in the way of the music or the people playing it." He goes even further: "If you stop loving music, it's better to leave it alone. Don't do it because you don't know what else to do, and don't do it for money. We're lucky to be paid, but it's not why we do it."
No question that New York audiences will be in good hands. Davis looks forward to his upcoming trip with the LSO. "We go to New York and we're going to play the hell out of it," he says. "We're going to prove there's life in the old island yet."
Robert Hilferty is a frequent contributor to Playbill.