They’re past the betrothal, but not quite in the honeymoon stage just yet.
Bramwell Tovey’s year as the Sarasota Orchestra’s music director designate will reach an important milestone in two weeks, when he leads a Masterworks performance for the first time.
There’s a push-and-pull, says Tovey, about putting your fingerprints on an organization in this day and age. He doesn’t want to do too much too soon; he wants to respect the foundation that has been laid here while also laying plans for the future.
“You want to put your stamp on right away. And I do want to do that,” he says. “But these are unique circumstances. The end of the pandemic means people are still a little bit nervous about coming back. They want to get used to the orchestra again. ... It’s the moment to bring people back into a comfort zone in the hall. When the hall is packed, it’s a thrilling experience.”
That sensation is one Tovey knows more than most. He’s led orchestras in many of the world’s most famous institutions, and he’s been rewarded for his work with a Grammy and a Juno Award.
Tovey directed the Vancouver Symphony for 18 years prior to accepting the Sarasota job, and it’s given him a world of perspective.
Interestingly, when Tovey thinks of his future home, he sees a world-class destination. He knows Iain Webb and Margaret Barbieri of the Sarasota Ballet from decades ago; in fact, he even conducted a performance of "Swan Lake" with Barbieri starring as the White Swan.
The master conductor said he had a great conversation with Victor DeRenzi of the Sarasota Opera last year, and he looks forward to the synergy between the local arts organizations.
“The ballet, the opera, the symphony and theater life in Sarasota, considering the size of the city, it’s enormous. It’s much more impressive than the city of Vancouver, which I think is 10 times bigger,” he says of the contrast between his former home and future one. “People like to go to the ballet. They like to go to the opera. Maybe they have their favorites.
"But it’s not like we’re all making toothpaste and you have to choose what kind of toothpaste you want. We’re manufacturing different art forms, and I think there’s a great respect between the organizations.”
Taking the baton
Tovey is no stranger to the body he’s leading from afar. He conducted the Sarasota Orchestra in a performance last October, providing a brief taste of his style. He’s also been in constant contact with Kerry Smith, the orchestra’s director of artistic planning.
The Sarasota Orchestra has been without a full-time music director since Anu Tali departed in 2019, and Tovey will have as many as 15 musician seats to fill through auditions. What’s that like for him to guide the orchestra’s hand while living in Barrington, Rhode Island?
“I don’t know anything about journalism at all,” he says. “But I would guess that in the role of an editor, sometimes you’re on the premises dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s. And at other times, you’re a remote presence while other people do the job. You make executive decisions that effect the well-being of the organization. In a sense, it’s a little bit like that.”
Tovey hopes he’ll find a place to live in Sarasota by the fall, and his first performance as full-time music director will probably take place in October or November. That’s still far away, but the musicians he’ll lead are quietly stewing in their excitement.
Daniel Jordan, the orchestra’s concertmaster, was involved in the search process for the new music director, and he said Tovey’s personality helped to make him a perfect fit.
“Yes, there’s incredible music making. He’s got this world class reputation,” says Jordan. “But when you strip all that away, he’s just a wonderful human being. He’s funny. He’s engaging. He’s personable. And he says it like it is.
"It’s so refreshing to work with a musician like that. It’s the same way with his music making. It’s about trying to find the heart of the music, trying to make something we can all feel proud of. That just comes through with him so quickly.”
Cheeko Matsusaka, the orchestra’s cellist, said she quickly warmed to the idea of working with Tovey just from seeing his music selections. Matsusaka, who has been part of Sarasota Orchestra since 2002, said that Tovey made a strong first impression last fall.
“The first time he was here, he programmed a piece of music that I thought I would never get to play in this country,” she says. “That was the Walton Symphony. I had heard an old recording and I fell in love with this piece and thought, ‘God I want to play it.’ Sure enough, it shows up on the program and I said, ‘Who programmed this?!’ I was so excited to play that piece.”
Picking his own players
The music selections, of course, are one of the most obvious ways a conductor can impact an orchestra. Which pieces and which composers do they value? What’s the direction they want to take the orchestra and the audience in for any given presentation or season?
Tovey says that one of the first things he’s done is get a printout of the orchestra’s repertoire and make mental notes on what has and hasn’t been played recently. But he doesn’t want to break the mold just yet; he wants his orchestra to be on comfortably sound footing.
“What does the orchestra do week to week?” he asks. “They perform two to two and a half hours of repertoire. Sometimes, they do five hours per week. They’ve got to do individual preparation time. They’ve got to do individual practice. They do individual teaching and they do collective rehearsing. And then they collectively perform. All of that requires tremendous virtuosity and dedication and preparation. For them to be overloaded with the obtuse selections of a new music director, that wouldn’t be very friendly.”
The more subtle way Tovey can impact the orchestra is by choosing its next generation of musicians. A normal year might see three or four vacancies, says Tovey, but the Sarasota Orchestra has 15 because it was not able to conduct auditions during the pandemic.
There could be as many as 70-90 candidates for a clarinet or trumpet audition, says Tovey, and the three-round selection process is grueling. All auditions are blind; the musicians play from behind a screen, and there’s a carpet to disguise the sound of their footsteps.
Tovey hopes to split the auditions into two seasons. He says it’s just too difficult and too time-consuming to conduct open auditions for a sizable portion of the orchestra in a given year.
“They are mostly great. But people have peccadillos,” he says of the candidates. “Some players haven’t dealt with vibrato issues or maybe they have tuning issues. Maybe their shifts aren’t so great. There’s very few people with the whole package.
"Then you’re looking for that indefinable, poetic, artistic quality. Does this person speak to me through their music-making? Would I buy a ticket to that person? If often comes down to subjective judgments.”
Jordan has been part of the Sarasota Orchestra since 1998, and Tovey will be the third musical director he’s worked for over that span. He’s been so proud to work with all of his colleagues, says Jordan, and now it feels like they’re in a new stage of evolution.
“It feels like we wouldn’t have been ready for somebody like Bramwell Tovey 20 years ago. But we are now,” says Jordan. “That’s a really special moment. It’s like a marriage. We’re all taking this leap of faith together. We’re diving off the high dive together.”
So what will they be playing in their first Masterworks concert together?
Tovey chose a program with a rich and varied background; there’s a Strauss composition, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, to open the evening, and Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2 to end it.
In between, the orchestra will play Mendelssohn and Coleridge-Taylor. Tovey, true to his irreverent nature, described Daphnis and Chloe as “A bit like '50 Shades of Gray' for an orchestra,” and he says that the program’s opener is noted for its sense of humor.
“Till Eugenspiegel is one of the funniest pieces of classical music. It’s hilarious,” he says. “But most orchestra audiences sit and listen to it in silence. It’s full of gags. And it takes five minutes to explain these gags to the audience. I always do that before we start. You hear the audience bursting into laughter, so the plan is to make that high part of the introductory card.”
So there’s laughter in the Masterworks, and there’s seduction too.
If that’s not what you’re expecting when you head to a night with the orchestra, that’s precisely the point.
“The first piece speaks so much to what I see his character being,” says Matsusaka of Tovey and his Till Eugenspiegel selection. “He’s someone who looks like he’s staid, but he’s going to push the boundaries, and I like that very much about him. He can do it in a comfortable way. He can put his hand on your shoulder and say, ‘Let me take you over here.’”
Tovey, still months away from touching down in Sarasota permanently, is looking forward to the adventure.
He said he’s been so impressed with the infrastructure of the orchestra, from the top executives all the way down to the educational work they do in the community. Over time, he says, there’s no telling what they’ll be able to do together.
“As a group, I think they’re incredibly impressive. Individually, I think they’re outstanding,” he says. “It’s a wonderful group to work with. At the end of the day, as a conductor, I spend most of my time in a windowless studio working with musicians. I feel very confident about the people they are, the service they give and the quality of musical life that is available here in Sarasota. I’m just thrilled and honored to have been invited to lead the team.”