I last saw Colin Davis a couple of years ago, when he conducted two works of Sibelius: the Violin Concerto, with Nikolaj Znaider, and the Second Symphony. He and the London Symphony were in New York, where they would also perform Beethoven's Missa Solemnis.
Anthony Tommasini reported in the New York Times how he looked frail conducting the Berlioz Requiem in London last summer. If he wasn't frail when I saw him, he was certainly not at the top of his game. But what he did that night was better than most of what I have ever seen on the podium. From the LSO players, you could feel a love in every note they played. Znaider said a few words before his encore that evening, and they were all about Davis; his remarks suggested that this would be the last time we would ever see him conduct again.
I met him years ago, taking an orchestra tour off-day to observe him in rehearsal with the LSO and chorus in Berlioz's Beatrice and Benedict. Over and over again, he would turn around to ask the choral conductor (seated in the audience) how things sounded, if the balances were okay, etc. He was dressed impeccably, blazer and tie, but very informal in his manner. The Pittsburgh Symphony's Executive Director, Gideon Toeplitz (who also recently passed away), introduced me to Maestro Davis, who could not stop talking about his family. For a man notable for his temper, he seemed to be very much at peace with himself the day I met him.
”Conductors,” Davis once said in an interview with The New York Times, ”are paid to think, and that’s what the job should be about: sitting at home thinking, what is this piece? How can I set it up to sound its best and live on, because there’s nothing to replace it with just yet? This is what absorbs the mind. Especially in old age.”