He was called to military service and was posted to the Band of the Household Cavalry. At that point he formed, with some fellow Royal College instrumentalists, an ensemble called the Kalmar Orchestra, which he often conducted. It soon evolved into the Chelsea Opera Group, a semi-professional organization. Davis became recognized for his professional and stylish performances of Mozart
operas. In 1952 he became head of ballet music at Royal Festival Hall. He was an assistant conductor of the BBC Scottish Orchestra (1957-1959). In 1958 he debuted at Covent Garden in Die Entführung aus dem Serail. In 1959, when Otto Klemperer
became ill, he took over a performance of Mozart
's Don Giovanni at the Royal Festival Hall, a performance that won him wide acclaim. In 1960 lightning struck twice when Thomas Beecham
, scheduled to conduct Mozart
's Zauberflöte at Glyndebourne, fell ill and Davis again made a brilliant substitution.
In 1961 he was appointed musical director of the Sadler's Wells Opera. He resigned from Sadler's Wells in 1964 to do more symphonic conducting, especially with the London Symphony Orchestra
. In 1965 he was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. During this period he began to record widely, including a classic series of releases of the music of Hector Berlioz
, including the first recording of the complete Les Troyens.
From 1967 to 1971 he was principal conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra
, with the autonomy to pursue an adventurous policy of repertory. He conducted the Royal Opera Company on several occasions, again mainly in newer music, and emerged as a principal champion of Michael Tippett
He was chosen to succeed Georg Solti
as musical director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 1971. While continuing to be praised for his Mozart
and for unusual repertory, he received some criticism for his more standard selections, including a Wagner
Ring cycle of 1974-1976. Even so, he was asked to appear at Bayreuth, where his Tannhäuser in 1977 was the first appearance of a British conductor in the Wagnerian shrine. Over the years, he became more at home in the core operatic and orchestral repertory.
In 1980 he received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II. In 1984 he accepted a position as chief conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
in Munich. He took it on a tour of North America in 1986. In the same year, he resigned his position with the Royal Opera to have more time for guest conducting. He remained with the Munich Orchestra
into 1994 and was principal guest conductor with the Boston Symphony Orchestra
. In 1995 he was appointed principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra
, where he remained to his death in 2013. Davis won a Best Opera Grammy Award in 2006 for his LSO Live
disc of Verdi
's Falstaff and continued conducting the LSO