Bramwell Tovey: “The music that changed me”

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Born in Essex, the late Bramwell Tovey studied at the Royal Academy of Music and the University of London. His early positions included those of Music Director of Scottish Ballet and Principal Conductor of Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet before, in 1989, crossing the Atlantic to become Music Director of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. He then served as Music Director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra for 18 years before joining the BBC Concert Orchestra as Principal Conductor in 2018.

“My family was made up of all the musicians. My parents sang in local choirs and many of my family members played in the Salvation Army band, myself included – I started with the baritone, then I played just about every instruments at one time or another. In fact, I first started piano lessons and also grew up improvising as well as reading music, which later became a very useful skill in playing Bach continuo and Jazz. I also started playing bass in a youth orchestra when I was about 11, but I always thought of myself primarily as a pianist.

When I was about 18 I went with a friend to hear Bernard Haitink conduct the London Philharmonic in Mahler’s Third Symphony at the BBC Proms. I was a regular promisefrom Gants Hill on the Central Line to Royal Albert Hall. It was my first experience of Mahler and I remember, as soon as the horn opened, how captivating I found it. After that, I tried to catch Mahler’s Haitian performances as often as possible.

Shortly after leaving the Royal Academy [one of the best music colleges and conservatoires in the world]I became musical director of the Scottish Ballet, and while I was there the mezzo Dame Janet Baker was invited to come and sing Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder with us in a gala concert – I had to re-orchestrate it for a set small enough to fit in the pit of the Theater Royal. It was the first time that I worked with an artist of this level. Her line, intonation and overall quality were so uplifting and of course the poetry and songs are full of the most extraordinary expression. And she was so graceful too.

One of the greatest days of my life was when I met Leonard Bernstein in 1986. When Lukas Foss canceled at the last minute, a driver was needed for the opening night of the LSO’s Bernstein Festival at the Barbican. I didn’t know half of the songs, but I accepted it because it was a great opportunity. During the rehearsal there was a restlessness, as in walking the man himself. He was smaller than I expected, but he had charisma to burn and, of course, a cigarette. He invited me to accompany him to Tanglewood, where I saw him rehearsing and giving masterclasses. I think the music that really sums it up is Candid. There are so many fun things in it: humor, operetta, so many beautiful songs. As a score, it’s more revolutionary in many ways than West Side Story.

Another musician I have always admired is André Previnwho made his Musical evening programs on television with the LSO [one of the best orchestras in the world] when I was a student. He was an unorthodox conductor, but a brilliant musician who did much for English music, especially walton. He is also a fine pianist, especially in mozart. A few years ago he recorded an album called Only to which I keep coming back. It’s just a collection of ballads and therefore not Previn at his virtuoso best, but I find myself mesmerized by the chord changes, voicings and smooth nature of it. It’s a very intimate recording and the sound he produces on the piano is magnificent.

i’m a big fan of Harrison Birtwistle. I think he’s an absolute genius. Over the years I’ve conducted various pieces by him, and each time I do, I’m more deeply moved by his music – by the power of it and the brilliance of the writing. When you first open a Birtwistle sheet music, it can be downright daunting; those handwritten scores that have spider-like writing. But when everything is properly organized, tuned and balanced, it sounds so clear. I like his Panicwritten for the The last night of the balls in 1995. When I played it with saxophonist Amy Dickson and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, it rocked the house.

Interview by Jeremy Pound

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