It was an audacious assignment, undeniably flamboyant. Perhaps even a tad flaky. But Bramwell Tovey, the new music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, knew he could pull it off. The challenge? To beat a 1998 Guinness record by conducting the world's largest orchestra. The last benchmark was set by Tovey's former classmate, Sir Simon Rattle, who directed 3,503 musicians in Birmingham, England. But this week, Tovey is expected to best Rattle's lead by guiding the VSO and 10,000 British Columbia students in a concert at B.C. Place Stadium. Conducting a group of that size, says Tovey, is more like being "a traffic cop than an interpreter of high musical ideals." But the point was to draw attention to the importance of musical education, and the occasion gave Tovey a plum opportunity to make an introductory splash in Vancouver.
The 46-year-old, British-born maestro, who has the manners of a diplomat and the mug of a pugilist - he has a smashed nose, the result of being hit by several cricket balls - spent the past 11 years at the helm of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. Last year, he accepted the job in Vancouver, which he takes up officially in September. An accomplished composer, a jazz pianist, a peripatetic conductor and the force behind Winnipeg's nine-year-old New Music Festival, Tovey is a man of enormous energy and charisma. "His communication skills are superb," says VSO president and general manager Barry McArton. "He can walk into a room of 500 people and light the place up like a Christmas tree."
Winnipeggers regret his departure. "How many symphony conductors attain local celebrity status like sports figures and TV newscasters?" gushed the Winnipeg Free Press. The VSO's outgoing music director, Sergiu Comissiona, commuted from New York City, but Tovey will live in Vancouver with his Manitoba-born wife, Lana, a former schoolteacher, and two children (a third is on the way in June).
Tovey's musical roots are unconventional, to say the least. He was born in a community just outside London, to parents who were members of the Salvation Army. He played baritone horn in the Army band in addition to studying classical violin. Later, he attended the Royal Academy of Music - with Rattle - and joined the Sadler's Wells touring ballet company as assistant conductor. "I was thrilled to be on tour with three-dozen ballerinas," he says. "There are worse ways to pass your time when you are in your 20s."
By the mid-1980s, Tovey was making a name for himself in British classical music circles. During a 1986 London festival honouring Leonard Bernstein, the scheduled maestro's illness meant Tovey was asked at the last minute to conduct the famed American composer's symphonic suite from the movie On the Waterfront - with Bernstein in attendance. Tovey was in Birmingham, preparing for the opening night of The Snow Queen, a ballet for which he had created the score. But he rushed to London to rehearse the Bernstein piece, returned to Birmingham that evening for his opening, dined with Princess Margaret, then headed back to London. "Bernstein was very supportive the whole time," Tovey says.
Some Vancouver musicians who have worked under Tovey suggest he is not himself supportive and has a short fuse. "It's probably true to say I have zero tolerance for complacency in music-making," Tovey concedes. "But I don't think that is being short-tempered. I think that is being professional." Tovey says he intends to lead the orchestra into more works of Haydn and Bach and New Music composers such as John Corigliano and Gavin Bryars. "The orchestra has a reputation for the Russian masters and the works of the German school," says Tovey. "What I'd like to do is push the clock backwards and drive it forwards."
Tovey's pursuit of that growth will be bolstered by the financial health of the symphony: its subscription-renewal rate is 83 per cent, and it recently retired its $1-million debt. But the new music director says he can't afford to be complacent. "We have to win our spurs within the community," he says. "We must prove ourselves a viable and indispensable part of the life of Vancouver." Tovey's 10,000-musician overture is a good start.
Maclean's May 22, 2000