Bramwell Tovey crossed the Atlantic for the first time in 1983, at the age of 30. His first glimpse of Canada was conducting Swan Lake for Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet on tour at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. Later, on a tour sponsored by the Canada Council, he would see the two cities that would become home – Winnipeg and Vancouver.
In 1998, he came to Vancouver as a last-minute replacement to conduct Anton Bruckner’s colossal Symphony No. 8 – “among the most memorable performances of my career,” Tovey tells The Globe and Mail. After several subsequent visits, he was offered the music directorship of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, beginning in September 2000.
Tovey has been the VSO’s music director for an unprecedented 18 years. He conducts from the podium with skill, confidence and charm. He has won a Grammy and two Juno Awards. It is difficult to imagine the city without him – and without his strong and passionate voice about cultural matters. He has also acted as a cultural ambassador for the city – taking his show on the road, showing national and international audiences a side of Vancouver they might not have expected.
Tovey leaves the VSO at the end of this season; although he has so many projects on the go, he’s calling it a “rewirement” rather than a retirement. There will be a gala celebration in his honour at the VSO on May 31, ahead of Tovey’s final performance as music director on June 18; he then becomes music director emeritus.
He has a long list of upcoming performances, including dates with the BBC Concert Orchestra, at Tanglewood and the Hollywood Bowl. He’s also composing; he’s writing a new violin concerto for James Ehnes (with whom he and the VSO won that Grammy and one of his Junos) to be performed by the National Arts Centre Orchestra, and a new concerto for orchestra at the VSO. “So I’ll be a busy lad,” Tovey says. “I won’t be sitting idly by on some beach reading Bonfire of the Vanities or anything like that.”
As Tovey prepares to leave Vancouver, The Globe asked him to think back on some career highlights since his move to Canada – but not necessarily in Vancouver, or in Canada either. Here are some of his picks:
“After much trepidation and having already postponed the concept by one year, the Winnipeg Symphony board agrees to support my zany idea of a New Music Festival in the freezing, barren month of January. Thousands of people flock to hear John Adams and many others programmed by a revolutionary young composer, Glenn Buhr, who led the early years with me in tandem. CBC picked up every concert.”
“I led Benjamin Britten’s colossal War Requiem in Toronto for Niki Goldschmidt’s legendary choral festival with Ben Heppner, the TSO and the Mennonite Festival Chorus. In November 2018, I’m returning to the TSO 25 years later to conduct the same piece to commemorate the centenary of the end of the Great War of 1914-1918.”
“After the VSO’s recording of the complete Borodin Symphonies for CBC gets favourable reviews, I’m invited to go to the Luxembourg Philharmonic as a last-minute substitute to lead [Alexander] Borodin’s Symphony No. 2. I’m subsequently offered the position of music director, opening their beautiful new hall in 2006.”
“I visit the National Arts Centre Orchestra, and Pinchas Zukerman produces a cake to celebrate 20 years since my NAC debut in 1983.”
“I conduct the world premiere of [librettist] John Murrell’s and composer John Estacio’s wonderful Filumena for Calgary Opera and lead other performances in Ottawa and Banff later. It’s part of the tenure of [then Calgary Opera General Director] Bob McPhee, whose entrepreneurial artistic spirit leads to the commissioning of my own first opera, The Inventor, which the company premieres under my direction in 2011. The VSO gave [it] an outstanding concert performance in 2012, which was recorded for CD and should be out very soon.”
Los Angeles, 2007
“In 2007, Deborah Borda is president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic; she’s now president of the New York Philharmonic for the second time in her career, and is one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met. We have breakfast at a swanky hotel in Los Angeles and Deborah talks about me having a more extended relationship with the classical music audience at the Hollywood Bowl. … A few days later she telephones and offers me the position of Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, in succession to Leonard Slatkin. I’m thrilled and still spend several weeks every summer in L.A.”
“I’m making my first recording for Chandos [Records] with the BBC Concert Orchestra; it’s 25 years since I last conducted them. Back in the hotel in North London … as I arrive for the sessions, I walk into the bar [and] I hear the VSO playing O Canada on the television as Canada beats the USA in men’s hockey; [the VSO] had recorded 120 plus anthems for the Olympic Games. And this magical moment in my own life I shall never forget.”