Everyone, upon learning that it is Sir Colin Davis's 75th birthday year, has the same response: "He's 75? Impossible!" Whether regarded as the world's preeminent Berlioz champion, a sterling interpreter of Mozart, or a leading exponent of British music, Sir Colin remains ebulliently youthful in the collective mind. He disagrees, however: "I can't get much older, really," he chuckles by phone from London. This month he returns for his fifth season as Principal Guest Conductor of the New York Philharmonic, something he seems particularly to relish. "They are such extremely gifted musicians," he says, "and if you can assist in any way, it's all smooth as silk." He roundly dismisses the view that Philharmonic musicians are "conductor eaters": "Well," he says slowly, "while it's true I've been slimming down a bit, it's not because they've chewed anything off me."
Sir Colin's Philharmonic appearances this season include two offerings this month‹a program of Stravinsky, Mozart, and Haydn as well as a British music program‹and, next April, performances of Berlioz's Shakespearean opera Béatrice et Bénédict, possibly the most delicate of that composer's stage works.
Our discussion centered on his upcoming English-music program, November 14, 15, and 16, featuring tenor Ian Bostridge in his New York Philharmonic debut. Sir Colin notes that he chose the new Stucky arrangement of Purcell's Funeral Music for Queen Mary, which will receive its New York premiere in these performances, because it "is a good opportunity for the wind choirs of the Philharmonic to show off." In contrast, the strings will get to strut their stuff on the same program in Britten's Les Illuminations. Britten was staying on Long Island when he wrote this song cycle set to French verses by Arthur Rimbaud. As language has so much to do with the national flavor of a piece, I ask Sir Colin, if to his ear, there are specifically English musical points in the work. "Britten sounds like Britten," he replies. "He happens to be an Englishman, but he doesn't take over the kind of gestures that belong to the earlier part of the century‹to Elgar's era.
"Britten's teacher," he continues, "was Frank Bridge, a kind of Fauré-like figure really, a remarkable musician with a kind of autumnal flavor to his work. And I think he encouraged Britten in directions that lay away from the British-empire tradition.
"But, I don't think that Britten's music is really hung up on place or history or politics," says Sir Colin. He just loved the poems, and that was it. Listen to how he responds to the grotesquery of Rimbaud's poetry and to the beautiful images such as 'throwing garlands from star to star.' "
To my suggestion that the colors in Elgar's Serenade for Strings might have served as an example to Britten in this case, Sir Colin adds that "he also might have looked at the really Impressionistic colors of Berlioz's song cycle Nuits d'été, although the Berlioz pieces don't have the orchestral brilliance of Britten's work. But Les Illuminations has a kind of youthful vitality which is all his own."
Britten, the future knight and English peer, wrote Les Illuminations in 1939, five years after the death of Sir Edward Elgar, whose First Symphony concludes the English program. "Elgar himself said that the First was a massive hope for the future," says Sir Colin. "I'm glad he can't see what a bloody mess we're in now." Despite the positive reassessment Elgar's music has enjoyed during the last three decades, there are still many pundits who find his oeuvre overconfident and jingoistic.
"Hang on, hang on!" exclaims Sir Colin. "At the risk of being impertinent, what about the over-confidence of Beethoven's Ninth? Why is the grand statement of Elgar's First deemed more excessive than that? Or than the last movement of Mahler's First?" Fashion has a lot to do with it, he feels, as do critics whose blanket statements are accepted at face value by undiscerning readers.
"When dealing with Elgar, don't drag the British Empire into it," he cautions. "Just deal with the man. On the outside he was a man of his time, a bluff, good-natured, jolly fellow in his country tweeds. But on the inside he was eaten up with insecurity, lack of confidence, melancholy. And that is what comes out in the First Symphony. The slow movement is one of the most beautiful pieces in existence. It has nothing to do with the British Empire, for heaven's sake. It's all about Elgar.
"We have to see composers like Elgar or Sibelius or Mahler for what they are, and try to understand the source of the conflicts in their music," Sir Colin declares. "And those conflicts belong to the composers who wrote the notes, not to other people who only write about the notes.
"I believe in Elgar," Sir Colin continues, "and in that First Symphony he's made a tremendous human statement. It begins with a great ideal, and goes through all kinds of weather. And that it comes out triumphant in the end is the genuine triumph, we hope, of the positive human spirit over adversity. I don't denigrate confidence‹mankind has never done anything worthwhile without it."
Barrymore Laurence Scherer is a critic for The Wall Street Journal and author of Bravo! A Guide to Opera for the Perplexed (Dutton, 1997)