Many know him for the wave of his baton and the passion he infuses when conducting great orchestras around the world, most notably the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (VSO).
But before standing at the podium, or taking a pen to write his own compositions, Bramwell Tovey was sitting at the piano in his native England and listening to the music that surrounded him.
It was through his family’s service in the Salvation Army that Tovey first became attuned to music and performing, establishing the base in what has become an accomplished career — one that has taken him to international stages, and which will bring him to the Vernon Performing Arts Centre on Tuesday in a special concert presented by the North Okanagan Community Concert Association.
Tovey’s family involvement in the Sally Ann goes back not long after the Protestant denomination of the Christian church was founded by William Booth. His grandfather worked with Bramwell Booth, son of the founder, who was the first chief of staff and second general of the Salvation Army in the early-1900s.
“I was seven years old when I first sat down to the piano and I learned by ear when I was young,” said Tovey. “The preacher would sing in any, old key and I would play along… It was a tremendous education.”
Growing up, Tovey also sang in the Salvation Army choir and played in the bands, travelling around Great Britain, and eventually began studies at the Royal Academy of Music and the University of London.
Although the piano was always close to his fingertips, the baton and pen soon made their way into his music education. One of his first major jobs was that as the principle conductor for the Royal Ballet’s orchestra in the 1980s.
“I toured twice as a conductor (with the Royal Ballet) to Canada. We went from Toronto to Vancouver. It was a fantastic tour and I fell in love with Canada. I made a note to come back as much as possible.”
That wish became a permanent reality when Tovey moved to Canada to take over as music director/conductor of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra in 1989, serving for 12 years. His assistant during part of that time was none other than Rosemary Thomson, now conductor with the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra.
“She is an incredible woman and has gone on to do incredible things. I am so proud of her,” said Tovey.
Now in his 13th year leading the VSO, Tovey has seen orchestras in this country manage to survive through funding shortages, and the veil of an aging audience.
“I think the classical music scene is very healthy. It’s not my experience that it is dying,” said Tovey. “We played to 7,000 people in three days with two different programs that was well attended… It’s a lively art form that requires care and investment.”
And Tovey is at the forefront of that movement to keep orchestras alive and playing.
Besides his duties with the VSO, he continues his association with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, and as founding host and conductor of the New York Philharmonic’s Summertime Classics series at Avery Fisher Hall. And that’s not including his work as a guest conductor with leading orchestras in the U.S., Europe and Canada.
“My responsibility is always with the VSO. My kids live here in Vancouver. I conduct the VSO for half a season, along with my ongoing relationship with the New York Philharmonic every summer as well as the Hollywood Bowl every year,” said Tovey.
“I am very blessed. It’s a wonderful way to earn a living.”
As a composer, Tovey’s credits are also numerous and have earned him a Juno award for best classical composition as well as a Genie for best achievement in music for the original song In a Heartbeat, recorded with the VSO and Vancouver’s Chor Leoni.
In 2008, Tovey, along with violinist James Ehnes and the VSO, picked up a Grammy Award in the best soloist with orchestra category for their recording of three violin concertos by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Samuel Barber and William Walton.
But despite the accolades, it’s always back at the piano where Tovey finds himself.
“Whilst I travel most as a conductor, the piano is a big part of what I do. I love doing shows such as the one I will be doing in Vernon,” he said. “It’ll be a blend of classical and jazz, and I will introduce each piece with the relevance it has had on my life and career.”
On the program will be Tovey’s obvious passion for pop songs from the ‘30s and ‘40s, including some Porter and Gershwin, as well as some classical, Beethoven and Schubert, and perhaps one or two of his own compositions.
Tovey also sees these concerts as a less formal way to interact with his audiences, and he often does a Q&A session as part of his appearances. The result, he says, allows him to be more spontaneous with the audience and allows him to reconnect.
“I did one show in Burnaby and at the end a woman came up and introduced me to a distinguished gentleman in a wheelchair. It ended up being Oscar Peterson’s brother,” he said. “I love doing concerts like this… Let’s face it, classical music can be serious, but it can also be more fun than people think. It’s like a Shakespeare play… If you can make them laugh one minute and cry the next, then you know you’re reaching them.”
Tuesday’s An Evening with Bramwell Tovey at the Vernon Performing Arts Centre starts at 7:30 p.m. As the concert is not part of the regular NOCCA season, it requires a special ticket and new seat selection. Cost for NOCCA members is $30. Other tickets are $40 for adults, $20 for those under 18 and $5 for students on eyeGo at the Ticket Seller, 250-549-7469.