The Maestro

This has been an annus mirabilis in the life of Bramwell Tovey: perhaps not as mirabilis as the year when, a student at London’s Royal Academy of Music, he dated a flutist named Annie Lennox, but mirabilis enough. 2008 has been the year, nine into his tenure as music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, that he was appointed principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from its summer season at the legendary Hollywood Bowl. This summer he also made his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra and spent several weeks with the New York Philharmonic, as he has often done, conducting concerts in Central Park and elsewhere. His guest-conducting took him to Korea, Norway, and Australia, and in the fall he led a Vancouver Symphony tour to Asia with guest violinist Hilary Hahn, one of the hottest musical properties on the planet. Oh, and it was also the year the VSO, with Tovey conducting the brilliant Canadian violinist James Ehnes, won a Juno-Tovey’s second; he took one home in 2003 for his composition Requiem for a Charred Skull-and a Grammy Award.

Never mind, though, that Tovey can stand on a podium and bend a hundred highly trained, opinionated musicians to his will; the guy can also really, really talk. Fluency is the ruling circuit in the motherboard of his being, and this free-flowing rule applies-not surprisingly, given his vocation-as much to music as to language. It’s what gives him an edge in a profession that could never be called conventionally overcrowded but that still boasts more qualified candidates than there are podia to contain them.

Q: The audience sees you on the podium and sometimes hears you speak from the stage. So on the one hand, it’s perfectly clear what you do. On the other, it’s totally mysterious. What are you really doing up there?

A: I’m the person who organizes the orchestra from an artistic point of view. But everything that happens onstage is my responsibility; you could even say it’s my fault if things go wrong. I don’t necessarily choose all the music-we have a programming committee-but I stand by the choice. I strategize the order of the rehearsal, I have to say definitively if I feel members or sections are ahead or behind the beat, dragging, rushing, if they’re flat or sharp. I dictate the tempo with my right hand, and I use the baton because it’s more energy-efficient, requires less physical strength. The left hand is used to underline passages, to subdue the orchestra, to cue people, to signal, to emote, to characterize the music we’re playing.

By the time you come to the concert my role has changed from taskmaster and coach to something more aesthetic, in a way: an inspiration. Some players need a smile before a solo, some need to feel themselves firmly in place-in the way that when people come as a guest into your house different people need different things, need to be treated in different ways. Not everybody just mucks in. All that learning, all that craft, all that practice-it all comes down to the moment of performance and to such questions as, Will that horn player reach that high B-flat? Will this player crack like they did last Tuesday? There are mini dramas going on all the time and my job is to psychologically and musically manage them.

Q: What are you to the audience?

A: I was born with one of nature’s cosmetically challenged faces, so it was important to find a profession where I could turn my back on people. What the audience has come for is the pleasure of the wave of sound and to watch the skill and appreciate the individual artistry of the musicians. I give them a point of focus while they follow the language of the piece.

Q: It isn’t just good pitch or the ability to remember a tune that allows you to do the thing you do?

A: I was born with a certain amount of aptitude and with a number of musical skills that happen to coincide. I learned classical piano, which got me into the language of music. I haven’t been a uniformed Salvationist for many years but I come from a Salvation Army background and I played in the bands and played for services where the preacher hums a song and you have to pick it up in any key. Doing that made me able to play by ear, and that led to being able to function as a jazz musician. And luckily, it’s much easier now than it was 30, or even 10, years ago to be a polymath. We’re just more accepting of it.

Q: The VSO is a very good orchestra, but you’ve spent a bicoastal summer conducting the New York and Los Angeles philharmonics, orchestras that are top of the top of the heap. How is that different, musically?

A: It’s not as different as you might expect. The main disparity is one of size, and this comes from the fact that New York and L.A. are among the best-funded orchestras in the world: not through government agencies but from corporate and individual donations. We have VSO alumni playing in both orchestras, where their salaries have tripled. But we have some real strengths-like our fantastic young wind section, for instance-and the Grammy underlines where we are in the pecking order of orchestras.

Q: What’s been the ripple effect of the Grammy?

A: Huge. It’s the accreditation from an outside, highly prized source that any group or musician craves. Everyone understands the significance, so it’s been fantastic for us, and for James Ehnes. And this was repertoire that we recorded in 2005, so it’s a trophy on the mantelpiece that represents the VSO as it was three years ago. Since then, the orchestra has grown enormously.

Q: Why does a 21st-century city like Vancouver need a 19th-century institution like a symphony orchestra? If we were to wake in the morning and find it had gone away, how would the place be different?

A: A city’s cultural institutions are part of the identity of the place, and an orchestra has a very particular role and function. There’s no doubt that you can read a book at home, see a film at home, but the experience of live music is something that’s quite different to what you hear on CD. You cannot replicate it, and that’s because of the chance factor. Here you have individuals who come together to perform, and what are they doing? They’re breathing life into creations that are sometimes very recent, sometimes centuries old, and that continue to have an incredible relevance today, works by composers who have set out to articulate the human condition. We’re preserving something that’s so far removed from the simple chord progressions of a pop song and so far removed from the three-minute sound bite. Symphonic works are architectural constructions that are 30, 40, sometimes 50 minutes long. Beethoven’s Ninth is 70 minutes long. In fact, CDs were designed to accommodate it.

Music is a profound expression of the soul, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be populist. Ten years ago, symphonic music and opera had about them the sheen of suit-and-tie elitism. All of that has changed considerably and dramatically, and we work very hard and deliberately to reach young audiences-going out into the schools, playing for kids, getting to know music educators.

Q: Your wife, Lana, is a singer. Are your children infected with music?

A: We have two daughters, soon to be eight and 10. The older one plays the piano; the younger, the cello. Recently, at a family party, the cellist played “Twinkle, Twinkle,” and it was fascinating to see her as a performer: to see the intense concentration on the instrument and also her awareness of the audience. Something happened at that moment. She was using music to express herself; she understood at a level the connection between the physical act of playing and the music itself. She was able to sing part of her soul to the audience. Well, that’s no different to the experience of a cellist like Yo-Yo Ma, who’s 40 years older.

Q: You’ve recently been in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Australia, Asia. Will you have time off? Isn’t it important that you allow yourself to recharge?

A: Oh, that happens constantly. I’m al­ways writing, thinking, post-morteming. The work itself is regenerative. And now and then the unexpected occurs. For example, I spent a week in England this summer with the National Youth Brass Band of England, which is another of the hats I wear. One of the young players suffered from meningitis as a baby and is profoundly deaf, but is a brilliant musician. We had a guest conductor, an amazing man who’s in a wheelchair and unable to move his arms, but who can conduct nevertheless through the sheer magnetism of his personality. To watch this young musician, Sean, become inspired by someone whose musical circumstances were also unconventional but not limiting-well, that was as much charge as I’ll need for a long time.

Q: A writer in the Los Angeles Times compared you to Thomas Beecham. I wonder if Leonard Bernstein isn’t more apt. He was also a composer, a conductor, at ease in jazz idioms.

A: I worked with Bernstein very early on and he was a tremendous influence and someone we all have to admire, but he also smoked and drank himself to death and allowed himself to be pulled in too many directions, so he’s a bit of a cautionary tale. As for Beecham, of course I grew up listening to his music, and Delius, who was one of his favourite composers, is one of mine, so the comparison is flattering. But someone also said recently that I was like a combination of Noël Coward and Anna Russell.

Q: Comparisons are odious, as we know, so not to dwell on this, but Beecham and Bernstein were both great talkers, as are you.

A: I’ve always loved words, always loved reading. I collect books, have four or five thousand now, I suppose. Shortly after my father died, when I was 15, all my books were stolen and since then I’ve never gotten rid of any.

Q: Fifteen is young to lose a father. Did he ever see you conduct?

A: He died on Thursday, December 5, 1968, and I conducted for the first time exactly nine days later. It was our final youth orchestra rehearsal before the Christmas break and our director asked if anyone wanted to have a go at conducting and I put up my hand-it was Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture.”

Q: Was it amazing?

A: Transformative, that act of standing in front of an orchestra and having the sound appear out of your hands, along with the fact that it happened so soon after my father died. I feel robbed that he was never able to see me develop because I know he would have lived vicariously through it.