A maestro at the peak of his career, Bramwell Tovey might be new to Sarasota audiences, but it won’t take long for them to embrace the British-born conductor for his charismatic, warm, energetic and witty self. Sarasota had a brief taste of Tovey when he guest-conducted the Sarasota Orchestra in the 2019-2020 season. As of September of this year, he’s here to stay.
Interpreting a complex, challenging 20th-century masterpiece or putting a new spin on a classic, Tovey's track record has been a successful one, working with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra and Philadelphia Orchestra, as well as orchestras across Europe and Asia. He is also principal conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra, artistic advisor to the Rhode Island Philharmonic and principal guest conductor of Orchestra Symphonique de Quebec. Before setting his sights on Sarasota, he was music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra for 18 years.
He’s also a pianist and composer and a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music and the University of London.
You’ve worked all over the world and most recently in Vancouver. What lured you to the tropical shores of the Gulf Coast?
I came down to visit a friend in Sarasota and I met many people in leadership positions in the arts & music. I loved their energy. I also liked the city itself. What’s not to like about it? I also recently recovered from cancer (diagnosed in 2019) and I felt the universe say to me “go for it.” The cancer journey was life enhancing for me. I learned how to be a better human being as a result. I learned a lot from the experience. And here I am.
Every article I read about you speaks to your charismatic ways with the audience. Tell us more about your personal style?
Making a connection with my audience is very important to me. I believe in being authentic - and audiences can tell if someone is authentic or not - and I’ve learned to say the right thing at the right moment. I like to have intense visual contact with my audience as I believe the eyes are the windows to the soul and helps to build trust. I like to talk softly and intimately to my audience making sure I don’t use artificial verbiage that’s technical and “mumbo jumbo.” I believe in keeping it simple and always….always humor!
You’ve said in interviews “the power of music changes lives.”
Words can’t describe the nuances of life, but music can. Music influences us in so many was in a harmonious fashion. Sounds generate emotions, and when we’re all put into a room together playing instruments, we are in harmony and that brings us all together.
I’m told one of your passions is mentoring youth and opening them up to music.
I love to ignite young souls. When I was music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, I created the VSO School of Music, which opened in 2011. It is now housed within the Tovey Centre for Music, a state-of-the-art facility where students of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds could enjoy lifelong learning and the majority of instructors would be members of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. Funding allowed a new community music school, serving students from 3 months old to senior citizens, catering to all ability levels from beginners to aspiring professionals. I also believe that we need to teach our youth more about the famous composers so they can identify with them. Beethoven was a rock star! And he looked a little like Mick Jagger, you know. Kids can relate to that.
What is Sarasota Orchestra’s five-year plan with the help of your new leadership?
I want to help the orchestra develop and fulfill its growth potential, especially through recruitment. I also want to address areas of repertoire that we haven’t yet tackled such as looking at different was of presenting “tried and trusted” pieces of music and other types of repertoire. This year I’m hoping to explore a brilliant composer, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor whose work was performed in the U.S. in the early 1900s. Of course, we all would like to see a new home built for Sarasota Orchestra.
I know your father had a profound influence on you growing up, encouraging you to pursue music.
I was born in England and my father died at a young age. When he was alive, he recognized that I was a very shy, little boy, and that I loved to listen to music. He encouraged me to play an instrument and I played in the school orchestra and he never missed a concert to show his support. I was trained for classical but when I joined the Salvation Army Orchestra I was influenced by other types of music. You know something about me? I’m a bit of a jazzer, too!
Any other thoughts to share that will give readers a glimpse into the Tovey mind?
I am very grateful to the Sarasota Orchestra for their invitation to be their new music director. My decision to join them was made because the musicians’ artistry and dedication - and the organization’s health and community’s support all resonated with an inspirational unanimity of vision. For me, music is a profound language that addresses humanity at a level that is beyond mere words. To have been able to spend my entire career sharing music through the power of the modern symphony orchestra has been an extraordinary privilege.