Up the Hill and Over the Top With Berlioz, Jack Nicholson, and Sir Colin Davis (1927-2013)
—Colin Davis on first hearing Berlioz
I move around a lot because things tend to get bad when I stay.
—Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces –
It’s just not done. You don’t drive to New Hope with the Berlioz Requiem. It’s too much to ask of Moby, my sturdy 12-year-old Honda CRV, who has just been treated to a new timing belt. But this is a special occasion. Colin Davis, the conductor in charge of the sonic juggernaut rocking the car, died last week, April 14, at 85.
As we speed down down down one hill, gathering momentum for the steeper hill looming dead ahead ten minutes this side of Lambertville, I’m holding on for dear life with my left hand, conducting with my right. We’re into the last of the massive orchestral movements surging toward the Day of Wrath as we hit the upgrade, and here comes grief and glory from the four corners of the earth, four brass choirs playing the fatal fanfare, the Tuba Mirum that, as Davis liked to say, “blows your brains out.” Now Moby’s pushing past horsepower to whalepower like his great white namesake and we’re over the top as the chorus lays a wave of pure sound on the hilltop horizon, 400 voices above a score of thundering drums, it’s as if everyone who ever lived is singing “as all creation rises again.” Then we’re over the top into the sun and wind and the hushed, humbled calm of the Quid sum miser. On to New Hope!
Five Easy Pieces
The idea that “serious music” has to exist apart from the rough and tumble of real life is violated with a vengeance in Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces. Until serendipity brought the film my way in the aftermath of Sir Colin Davis’s death, I’d had doubts about doing a column on a British conductor who seemed too far from the American mainstream — too, well, serious. But not if he’s sharing the column with Bobby Eroica Dupea, the blue-collar black sheep of a family of classical musicians played by Jack Nicholson, who turned 76 on April 22.
If you can soar with Berlioz in a Honda, you can get down with Chopin in a pick-up truck. According to Edward Douglas’s biography of Nicholson, the whole film evolved from Rafelson’s vision of Jack “out in the middle of a highway, the wind blowing through his hair, sitting on a truck and playing the piano.” What makes the moment exhilarating is the way it blows through the cliches of class and cinema shaping our expectations. All we know of Bobby when he piles out of his car in the middle of a nightmare of gridlocked, horn-blaring road rage is that he’s a hard-working, hard-living, hard-drinking, hard-bowling handful with a short fuse. Now that he’s out there shouting at the honking drivers (“Ants!”) and barking back at a barking dog, we’re anticipating some vintage American violence, maybe a tire-iron duel to the death, a shoot out, or a kerosene-laced free-for-all that ends with at least one car going up in flames. Instead, Robert Eroica Dupea has spotted a familiar object in the back of an open truck, a piece of furniture he knows all too well; the canvas sheet loosely pulled over it can’t hide the story of his early life. Climbing abroad the truck, he flings the canvas off the piano, sits down, and liberates his demons, pounding out Chopin’s Fantasy in F-minor while back in the car his bellylaughing buddy claps and whoops and cheers him on. And he’s still playing when the traffic begins to move and still at it even as the truck heads off down a side road, he doesn’t care, he’s free, and for all purposes already on his way back to the other half of his life.
Sure enough, next thing you know he’s on the coast highway heading north to the family home on an island in the environs of Seattle. The apparent motive for the visit is to see his dying father, though it’s also clear that he’s fed up with his trailer camp oil-rigger life and feeling burdened by his Rayette, a sweet, sexy, gauche, super-needy, and apparently pregnant Tammy Wynette-wanna-be played to the hilt by Karen Black. On the drive north, there are some moments memorable enough to help secure Five Easy Pieces a place with the best films of its era (see the YouTube clips “Side Order of Toast” and “Palm Apodaca”). It’s also the only American film that German director Wim Wenders “felt close to” at the time of a 1976 interview. Wenders found it “a very European film in a way,” because of the family living in the big “English house” where “everybody is playing an instrument” — ”all that cultural background … it’s not American.”
After leaving Rayette at a nearby motel, Bobby revisits the music-haunted house he grew up in and proceeds to seduce his concert violinist brother’s elegant fiance, Catherine, herself a pianist (as is his sister Partita). The seduction begins when he plays, at her request, Chopin’s prelude No. 4. As a subdued Bobby plays, the camera tours the big room, which is steeped in family history, violins lying about, music manuscripts, framed photographs of family members in performance, Bobby as a youngster, and, of course, framed portraits of Chopin and Mendelssohn. In less than three minutes you understand where he’s coming from and why when he finishes and is complimented for playing with feeling, he insists that he felt “nothing.” The merging of music, imagery, and movement in this sequence is surely among the moments Wenders had in mind when he spoke of European films and English houses.
Smashing It All Up
There’s a definite rough and tumble side to Sir Colin Davis’s story, and a touch of Jack Nicholson’s volatility in a conductor known in his middle years for “schoolboy tantrums” and talking back to the audience. In fact, when the movie-star-handsome Davis was doing his first stint as conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra at around the same age as Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces, he was, by his own admission, “a raw young man” battling with “a pretty ferocious bunch of pirates.” In a 2007 interview, he remembers “There were no women in the orchestra except for a harpist who smoked a pipe. And we had lots of battles.” By the time he took over from Georg Solti at the Royal Opera, he was in his mid-forties and had yet to mellow. When members of the audience, unhappy at losing Solti, booed him, he booed back and stuck his tongue out, and the Covent Garden seas remained stormy until he left in 1986.
Like Bobby Dupea, Davis had two families, three, if you count the one he was born into, a struggling bank clerk’s son with six siblings and no electricity housed above a shop in Weybridge, Surrey. In the online Daily Mail article I’ve been quoting from, which is accompanied by the best Colin Davis photos available (in one he’s shown hugging an immense pet iguana, in another he’s on fire conducting, rearing back, one fist clenched, roaring like a lion), he remembers, “We had a zinc bath in front of the coal fire with all these slippery kids jumping in and out. There wasn’t any light except for the fire. It was all rather humble.”
Of the conductor’s other two families, the first was predictably musical, given his marriage at 22 to April Cantelo, a soprano, with whom he had two children, Suzanne and Christopher; while his wife’s career was taking off, he was scuffling for work, reduced at times to babysitting, and in the mid-sixties, when personal and professional revolt were the order of the day, Davis made his move. Sounding like a British variation on Bobby Dupea, he put it this way, as quoted in Norman Lebrecht’s The Maestro Myth: “I decided I didn’t like anything in my life. So I stood back and smashed it all up.”
Unlike Bobby, who abandons his pregnant partner and heads for Alaska, Davis picked up the pieces and put his life back together again. With his marriage dissolving and his career going nowhere, he righted himself by reading Hermann Hesse, Herman Broch, and Nikos Kazantzakis, and falling in love with his family’s former au pair, an Iranian diplomat’s daughter. He married Ashraf Naini (Shamsi) multiple times in order to satisfy both the Iranian and British authorities, once in Tehran, once in the Iranian Embassy in London as well as in a civil ceremony. The marriage produced five children, Kurosh, Kavas, Farhad, Sheida, and Yalda, and lasted 46 years, until Lady Davis, as she was known after Davis was knighted in 1980, died in June 2010. When he was asked how he could go on conducting Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro at the Royal Opera House only days after her death, he replied that his strength “comes from the music,” and said of Mozart, “he’s life itself.” In one of his last interviews, he admitted that “not a day passes” that he isn’t “thinking about his own death.” In a Times of London article on the occasion of his 80th birthday in September 2007, he said, “Every piece of music is a rehearsal of one’s own life. It comes out of nothing and disappears into nothing.”
Davis in Action
Go looking for the combative tantrum-thrower online and you’re more likely to find a sage whose gifts as a conductor include humanity and humility, a sense of humor, a poet’s grasp of language, and a willingness to be consumed in the fire of the score when, for example, the object is to set the Berlioz Requiem ablaze in all its tumultuous glory. On YouTube you can see him rehearsing for a millennium concert of that “stupendous” work, telling the violinists among his vast corps of student musicians to think of the tremolos in the Dies Irae as “the fire that’s going to consume you when you’ve been condemned.” These are more than words to Davis; he’s in there physically and emotionally as he demonstrates by clutching an invisible violin and sawing it in a mad frenzy, mouthing the savage sounds, as if he were single handedly conjuring the fire. It’s a frenzy even Jack Nicholson might envy.
I’d rather remember the conductor who said of his art, “The difference between something alive and something dead is that the living thing breathes,” and who could express not only the frenzy and the fire of Berlioz but the “melodies that wafted away and came back to earth,” like the Shepherd’s Chorus from L’Enfance du Christ, of which Davis says in a YouTube interview, “If you’re not moved, I’m sorry for you. You’ll have to move on.”