Vancouver Symphony’s Bramwell Tovey on point even though tenure ending

Bramwell Tovey.

The Bramwell Tovey farewell tour rolls into Ottawa this week. And while there have been many kind words and lots of warm, nostalgic feelings, the man himself is trying to stay focussed on the task at hand … conducting the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

“I’m just doing the job really,” he said in an interview. “It’s very easy to get sucked into all the nostalgia. People have been very kind. (Recently) we had a concert and my two daughters played and sang that was wonderful to have them join me on stage. That was nostalgic and there is a gala coming up, but really you’re only as good as your next concert. There’s no point wallowing too much about the past.”

The VSO makes its first appearance in Ottawa since 2009 this Friday along with violinist James Ehnes and mezzo-soprano Marion Newman.

Ehnes will play the Brahms violin concerto and Newman will sing in Tovey’s composition Ancestral Voices.

While Tovey doesn’t delve into social and political issues regularly in his compositions, he certainly did with this piece.

“I wrote it about a year ago and we have performed a dozen times already. As a composer, I felt I could make a contribution to (Canada’s) reconciliation debate. Culturally, it seems to be something we need to embrace with all our hearts.

“The music is not culturally appropriated at all and the text is based on letters and documents I found in government sources including contemporaries who wrote about the alleged efficacy of the residential school system.”

The piece will open the concert.

Tovey said he had Newman, whose father is a chief of a First Nation on Vancouver Island, in mind when he was starting to write the piece.

“I met her a few years ago when she sang in the Mozart Requiem. We sat down and talked about these issues and when we started talking about it, I realized we both wanted to contribute to the debate from the orchestral stage.  She helped guide me with some of the texts and she was very much part of the process of choosing the right words.

“I think a concert hall provides the setting for us to appreciate how utterly shocking and dreadful the concept (of residential school) was.”

As a composer, Tovey says he is always thinking about things he wants to write about. Sometimes they are motivated by the real world.

For example, in 2003, Tovey wrote a Requiem which won a JUNO “because I was so horrified by what was going on in Kosovo. As a composer you really try to seize the moment and lift the day. I’m just trying to contribute to the debate. I’m not trying to tell people how to behave, I’m just saying these are the issues and then leave people to decide for themselves.”

The Ottawa concert will also feature Elgar’s Enigma Variations which, he said, is all about friendship, making it a nice pairing with a piece about reconciliation.

“It’s a very interesting piece, brilliantly written for orchestra. I’ve performed it a lot with VSO. We thought it would be a great piece to play on tour. The piece contains the beautiful central movement, Nimrod, which he wrote in 1899 to celebrate his friendship with a German music publisher. Less that 15 years later the First World War came along. It’s a really timely statement.

“I have become identified with the Enigma. I try very hard not to have a favourite piece of music but that one would be high on (my) list. You find those composers you are in sync with. There’s no point doing composers I don’t feel I do very well. That’s not why people come to a concert.”

Bringing James Ehnes on tour was a natural, Tovey said. The two have known each other for 30 years. Ehnes won a Grammy with the VSO for a recording of concertos.

Farewell tour interviews inevitably take one back to beginnings.

In Tovey’s case, his very first job was as an assistant conductor for the London Festival Ballet with Rudolf Nureyev some 40 years ago.

“You start small and build a career. I came up conducting opera and ballet,” he said.

His first trip to Canada was in 1983.

“I arrived from a Britain reeling socially and politically in 1983. I hadn’t crossed the Atlantic before. I was 30 years old. I stayed in a hotel in Ottawa that was a Holiday Inn then. My room was on the 20th floor and I had never had a room that high before. I was lucky if I got out of a B&B in the UK. I looked out the window saw Parliament and looked across the river to Hull and (wondered) ‘What is the real story here?'”

He found that Canadians that he met were not preoccupied with the class structure or the kinds of issues distressing the U.K. at that time.

“And I just started to fall in love with the country.”

He came back several times, until, in 1989, he moved to Winnipeg to lead the orchestra there. He kept going west and landed in Vancouver some 18 years ago.

“Canada then was such a melting pot of nations, with everyone living so cordially, seemingly. Of course, I know the truth is different, but it doesn’t matter. It was the wish, the desire to give everyone an equal opportunity that I found so inspiring. Now I have a Canadian wife and family, full on.”

He will continue to make his home in Vancouver even though work will take him to Britain where he will lead the BBC Concert Orchestra and to New England where he will teach at the Boston University School of Music.

This will be his first teaching gig, but Tovey has always been a mentor for younger musicians such as his former colleague Tania Miller who was assistant at the VSO before assuming the music director’s job in Victoria. He helped found an orchestra school in 2011, for example.

“It is important to embrace the people who are around you and what better way to do that than through young people.

“Music is a good news story. If you are holding a musical instrument you can’t be holding a cigarette; you can’t be holding a knife; you can’t be holding a syringe and you can’t be holding a gun.”

Tovey is of the opinion that a good teacher learns as much from his students as they learn from him.

“The great benefit of working with young people is the energy that is shared and what you can pick up from them … only a very little bit is the passing on of information and wisdom. … If you have any sense at all you learn as much as you can from your students.”

One of the advantages of the new job with the BBC is the end of fundraising for now.

“I never minded going to people and saying, ‘Here is our vision’. When you go to someone and say we are raising money for a school or this or that project, I haven’t minded that. But at this stage of my career, I am glad to have a rest from it, because it is a big responsibility.”

He will also enjoy being the music director emeritus for the VSO.

“You have to be old, you have to be grey haired to get that. But basically I’m thankful for the appointment. It means there is something in these years  that they want to celebrate which is wonderful. It will be a reminder of the organization’s heritage.”

This is an institution that Tovey has very much built up over 18 years.

“Over half of the orchestra is made up of people I have appointed or given tenure to. So the connection is pretty deep. I will miss that. I have become firm friends with so many of them. I love making music with them. I’m already looking forward to those weeks when I come back. But I haven’t left yet.”

Back to work.

Vancouver Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bramwell Tovey
With James Ehnes, violin, Marion Newman, Mezzo-soprano
Where: Southam Hall
When: May 25 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.