As a young conductor coming up the ranks, Sir Colin Davis could sometimes be hotheaded and temperamental. But in later years, as the wise reigning eminence of British music, he honed a style of podium mastery as a subtle dialectic between control and freedom. Conducting, he once observed, was like “holding the bird of life in your hand: hold it too tight and it dies, hold it too lightly and it flies away.”
Mr. Davis died Sunday at 85. The London Symphony Orchestra, where he was the longest-serving principal conductor in that ensemble’s history, announced his death and did not disclose the cause.
Over the course of his career, Mr. Davis also held leadership roles with London’s Royal Opera at Covent Garden and Sadler’s Wells opera, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, and the Dresden Staatskapelle. In North America, he built and nourished an important relationship with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, serving as its principal guest conductor from 1972 to 1984 and returning frequently between 2003 and 2010.
“He was one of the most important conductors of our time,” said BSO managing director Mark Volpe, “and it was a privilege for us in Boston to have him lead the orchestra not just in the titled role, but during his more senior years, when he reconnected with us in a very special way.”
The BSO is dedicating its April 19, 20, and 23 concerts to Mr. Davis’s memory.
‘He was one of the most important conductors of our time.’
“Everyone in the orchestra could sense this man was a very deep thinker, and it wasn’t just about music, but about everything,” recalled BSO principal bassist Edwin Barker.
BSO bassist Lawrence Wolfe concurred and added his appreciation for the eloquence of Mr. Davis’s physical presence on the podium. “He had this way of holding the baton from underneath, and it rocked on his second finger,” said Wolfe. “He almost used the baton like a bow.”
Mr. Davis was best known for his interpretations of Mozart, Haydn, Berlioz, and Sibelius, whose symphonies he recorded with the BSO in the 1970s. He also introduced the Boston public to most of the orchestral music of the British composer Michael Tippett and, with the BSO, gave the world premiere of Tippett’s oratorio, “The Mask of Time.”
At their best, Mr. Davis’s performances balanced a nobility of expression and philosophical depth of meaning with a more primal sense of sheer sonic exuberance.
“All life is a regression to childhood,” he said for an interview collected in “Maestro: Encounters with Conductors of Today,” a 1982 book. “If only I could conduct like a child . . . then all the music would come out directly, absolutely nakedly and unashamedly, with all the rubbish, all the sediment, cleared away.”
Mr. Davis was born in 1927 into a family of modest means. His father was a bank clerk who collected classical records, and as a boy Colin Davis studied clarinet and listened through his parents’ collection. At 13 he was knocked sideways by a recording of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 and chose to devote his life to music.
He attended the Royal College of Music and received his first appointment, in 1957, as assistant conductor of the BBC Scottish Orchestra. Mr. Davis earned early prominence through a pair of highly praised substitutions, for Otto Klemperer at Royal Festival Hall in 1959 and for Sir Thomas Beecham at Glyndebourne in 1960. He made his US conducting debut at that time and first led the BSO in 1967.
In Boston, he quickly became a favorite visiting guest among the orchestra, the public, and the musical press. Reviewing a Haydn symphony performance with the BSO in 1968, Globe critic Michael Steinberg wrote: “I could hardly imagine a more beautiful performance than the one Davis extracted from the Boston Symphony. Davis knows just who Haydn was and what his music is all about. There was energy, grace, lyricism, a delighted response to the winged play of Haydn’s mind, a touch of something like swagger.”
The BSO courted Mr. Davis to be its music director in the early 1970s, but family commitments in the United Kingdom prevented him from agreeing to the post. He instead accepted the directorship of the Royal Opera at Covent Garden, later saying in an interview collected in “Maestro” that he did not yet feel artistically prepared for the podium of a major orchestra.
“Traditionally all music came out of opera, out of the theater, out of song, dance, rituals and processions,” he said. “So how could one honestly tackle our symphonic heritage without a theatrical background?”
His 15-year tenure at Covent Garden turned out to be a rocky one, with Mr. Davis at times running afoul of the British critics, opera administrators, and the opera-going public. In the mid-1980s, Mr. Davis focused on his work with German orchestras, then recentered his professional life in London in the early 1990s. From 1998 to 2003 he also served as principal guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic.
In 2003, after a long absence, he began a series of frequent visits to the BSO. Of particular note was his 2008 account of Elgar’s grand oratorio “The Dream of Gerontius,” a performance of scrupulous detail and sublime tenderness. Many in the audience had been present when Mr. Davis first led the work in 1982, an evening Globe critic Richard Dyer called “one of the supreme musical highlights in this concertgoer’s life.”
Mr. Davis’s marriage to soprano April Cantelo, with whom he had two children, Suzanne and Christophe, ended in divorce. His second wife, Ashraf Naini, better known as Shamsi, died in 2010. Mr. Davis and Shamsi, an Iranian au pair who had cared for the two children of his first marriage, had five additional children: Kurosh, Farhad, Kavus, Sheida, and Yalda. Additional information about survivors was not immediately available.
In his later years, Mr. Davis embraced a psychologically astute view of music as offering a joyful if fleeting escape from the strivings of the ego, the prison of the self. “The less ego you have, the more influence you have as a conductor,” he told the London newspaper The Guardian in 2011. “And the result is that you can concentrate on the only things that really matter: the music and the people who are playing it. You are of no account whatever. But if you can help people to feel free to play as well as they can, that’s as good as it gets.”
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.