British conductor Colin Davis died this past Sunday, age 85. Davis was an extraordinarily gifted musician – to my ears, the greatest conductor of the last 30 years* (the one possible exception: James Levine). He holds a special place in my affections because he “taught” me what conductors do, and how important they are. In ’79 or ’80, my wife and I saw him conduct the Boston Symphony in a performance of Berlioz’ Symphony Fantastique at Tanglewood. Just coincidentally, 2 weeks earlier, in NYC, I had heard a performance of the same piece by a conductor whose name I won’t reveal — turgid, plodding, and a real snore. As that was the first time I had ever heard the piece, I (naturally, and stupidly) thought it meant that the piece was turgid, plodding, and a real snore. Then we heard what Davis and the BSO could do with it. To this day, it remains the most electrifying orchestral performance I’ve ever heard. It hit me – that was his instrument! The whole orchestra was his instrument! He was like a great pianist making a piece come alive, but with an instrument that was 1000 times more complex, with 1000 times more variations in color, and texture, and sound. He built up a tension over the course of the 40 minutes or so that was damn near unbearable. I distinctly remember the feeling at the very end – our seats were up towards the front, but somehow you just knew that there were four or five thousand people sitting behind you who were going to erupt the moment the piece was over. And so it was – it was as though the entire audience had hot pokers applied to their asses at the last chord, every single person in the hall leapt to his/her feet, all of that pent up energy released at last. I’ve been to fabulous live performances by, among others, Dylan, the Band, the Stones, Springsteen & the E Street Band, Joplin, Hendrix, The Police, . . . . but I can’t remember anything topping that moment.
* There are lots and lots of great Davis recordings, needless to say – my own favorites: the Sibelius Symphonies, and his indescribably delicious Cosi Fan Tutte.