Maestro and mentor: Bramwell Tovey keeps his door open for young musicians

Bramwell Tovey.

When one is the music director of an orchestra, Bramwell Tovey says, parents and colleagues are always presenting the prodigy you simply must hear.

As the new music director of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra some three decades ago, he was approached about some kid from Brandon, Manitoba, who played the violin.

Gwen Hoebig, who herself was quite young at the time, said to me there was this incredible violinist from Brandon who was winning prizes, who everybody thought was exceptional and would I hear him?

“In this job you get asked all the time to hear young players. I hear as many as I can because I think it is just part of the great tree of life.

“I said ‘Sure I’d love to meet him’.”

So the kid showed up one day with his dad. That was the first time Bramwell Tovey met James Ehnes.

“He came with his father Alan who was a trumpet professor at Brandon University. He was a pupil of Francis Chaplin, who was an exceptional violin teacher who died in tragic circumstances in a fire.

“Jimmy was very tall, super polite and super together. He started playing Tzigane (Ravel) which begins with five minutes of solo violin before the orchestra comes in.

Paganini’s hands.

“What I heard was incredible. What I saw was all the facility, the most amazing facility, and hands that I thought, and still think, reminded me of lithographs of Paganini’s hands.”

It was an impressive moment. Tovey said he looked at Alan Ehnes, who was in tears. He said he got a bit teary too. The result was that James Ehnes was back every year after to perform with the WSO. And the relationship continued when Tovey moved to the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. Tovey conducted Ehnes’ European debut. He recorded a Grammy winning CD with Ehnes of concertos by Barber, Korngold and Walton and he has written music for the violinist, notably the piece Stream of Limelight, for Ehnes’ 40th birthday tour. He’s currently at work on a concerto for Ehnes commissioned by the NAC. Expect to hear that in years to come.

The two friends will be reunited on March 20 in Southam Hall when Tovey conducts the NAC Orchestra and Ehnes plays the Sibelius Violin Concerto.

One other thing Tovey knows about Ehnes.

“Even back then he was a baseball nerd, the biggest baseball bore on the planet. I live within sight of Fenway Park in Boston right now because I am teaching at Boston University. As I look out my window, the Stars and Stripes are fluttering in the breeze over Fenway. He just thinks that’s the most incredible place to live in the world.”

For Tovey, not so much.

“I hate baseball. I rented this apartment during the off season and if I had realized how noisy it can get down here during games I wouldn’t have.”

No surprise that the Ilford, England-born Tovey loves cricket and soccer.

Bramwell Tovey and a young James Ehnes.

Tovey believes in keeping an open door to young musicians, in part because another Ehnes might walk through the door. In fact he heard a very early audition by the current concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, Benjamin Bowman.

He keeps his door open even though “some parents can be terrible.”

Sometimes he said he feels sorry for the kids, “sometimes I feel I can say something useful. It’s my job to be kind not judgmental. There are thousands of technically gifted children. How that translates into being the next Lang Lang or the next James Ehnes I can’t really say, but it is important to listen.”

He also listens to singers too.

“Quite often you can find singers who have been unjustly ignored.” And another Tovey rule is to never ever cut an audition short.

“There is a level of respect that we have to have for people who are trying to make it. I have been very lucky. I am having a great career and I think it goes with the territory. I think a lot of conductors now feel that we need to give as much encouragement as possible and being abrupt and rude in an audition or refusing to hear people is (not the way to go). I can’t hear everyone, but I think it’s important to try.”

Sometime you don’t hear the possibility. He heard the soprano Laura Whalen, who, he said, is now retired, early in her career.

“She came and sang for me. I didn’t realize her potential and she went on to a brilliant career.”

A big part of the music world is education, mentoring and passing on the knowledge.

“I don’t think I really realized the power of music education until I was in the later years of my time in Winnipeg. I had been doing education concerts. I enjoyed them but I didn’t really know why I was doing them, until various people explained the concept; how it was co-ordinated with the teachers in the classroom.”

When Tovey went to Vancouver one of his proudest achievements is the VSO School of Music that rose out of a derelict building behind the Orpheum Theatre. The school now has 1,800 students and practice rooms and classrooms.

“Two of my mentors died when I was in my 20s. My father died when I was 15. He was a great mentor, he really encouraged me. His education was interrupted by the war, and he left school at 14. I think he was living vicariously through what I was up to. After he died in 1968., it was a rough time and I appreciated any encouragement I could get.”

At Boston University, he has four conducting students, who, he says, call and write him more often than his own children.

“You become in loco parentis and you become a support for these kids. I get a tremendous amount out of teaching them.”

But he is giving it up. His performing plate is pretty full. He is the principal conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra in London, England; the artistic advisor to the Rhode Island Philharmonic in Providence and the artistic director of the Calgary Opera and he is about to settle into new digs in the Alberta city.

For those in the capital who long for a local opera company, Tovey has this advice:

“If lyric opera is to revive in Ottawa — how embarrassing that the capital city doesn’t have an opera company, it really makes you want to hide your head in shame — appoint a charismatic head who will live in Ottawa (who wouldn’t want to live there) and be prepared to visit schools, shake hands, build bridges and show why opera is part of the narrative of the human soul. It’s very, very relevant.”

The other key, he believes, is being musically timely and connected. “The revival of opera in the United States is being led by provincial companies. who are commissioning new works with scores for our times, for example The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, which was just done in Seattle.”

Calgary Opera, he said, has been commissioning works by various composers, including his opera The Inventor in 2011.

Even older works can be current. In Calgary, the company is rehearsing Rigoletto “which is all about #MeToo. Here is an opera written 150 years ago that is literally about our time.”

The National Arts Centre Orchestra conducted by Bramwell Tovey
Soloist: James Ehnes (violin)
Where: Southam Hall
When: March 20 and 21 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.