Shortly before Bramwell Tovey began what would be a record tenure as artistic director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, the maestro set another record, a cacophonous one, of the Guinness variety. In May, 2000, he gathered the VSO’s 73 members and about 6,452 music students at BC Place to play a program that included O Canada and Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.
“There is a very serious message behind all this razzmatazz,” Mr. Tovey said at the time. “It is a way for the VSO to show its solidarity with music educators, who are really under siege right now.”
It was a sort of overture; an announcement and a promise. Under Mr. Tovey, the VSO would put the highest value on education. It would be inclusive, part of the community. The orchestra would celebrate – and scrutinize – Canada. It would make its presence known across the country and the world. And there would be joy.
“He was an extraordinary musician,” says Pinchas Zukerman, the National Arts Centre Orchestra’s conductor emeritus. Before Vancouver, Mr. Tovey had left Britain for Winnipeg; he worked regularly with the NACO and other organizations, including Calgary Opera. “He did so much for Canada. He’s done so much for music in general.”
As Mr. Tovey began his 18 years at the VSO, the odds were against him. “Those first three years that we were there, I would say the organization could have collapsed at any time. The finances were so bad. The audience had diminished as well,” says former president and CEO Jeff Alexander, who started alongside Mr. Tovey. He recalls that there were Vancouverites who didn’t even realize the orchestra still existed, following grave problems dating back to 1988.
Mr. Tovey was the right maestro for the job. He had a deep understanding of music – and people: the orchestra musicians, the stars he attracted to Vancouver, the audiences who started coming in droves. He conducted with flair and eloquence, chatting up attendees with user-friendly explanations about the music, along with well-timed one-liners. His charisma on the podium extended to donor events – which he regularly attended, having made his home in Vancouver.
As in his previous tenure at the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, Mr. Tovey lived in the community and was immersed in it. “He was all in,” says Mr. Alexander.
“Every time I saw him perform,” says composer John Estacio, “I thought Canada’s not going to have you for long. This guy’s going to get snapped up by the world.”
Indeed, Mr. Tovey developed regular conducting relationships with some of the world’s most prestigious orchestras, including the London Philharmonic and the BBC Concert Orchestra, where he ultimately became principal conductor. He was the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s principal guest conductor at the Hollywood Bowl. He appeared more than 150 times with the New York Philharmonic, and became the founding host and conductor of its Summertime Classics Festival at Lincoln Center.
He presented the VSO to the world, including an ambitious 2009 tour to Asia that saw the first performances in China by a Canadian orchestra since the Toronto Symphony Orchestra visited in 1978.
He was also a prolific composer, remarkable on the piano – jazz and classical – and the tuba. He conducted international choirs.
Education was a key part of Mr. Tovey’s vision. It was his idea to build a music school attached to the VSO. He proposed the idea at lunch one day with Art Willms, then-VSO board chair, and Mr. Alexander. He suggested the VSO buy the multiplex next door to the Orpheum, where the VSO plays, and turn it into a music school.
“I looked at Bramwell and I literally said ‘Are you crazy? We barely have enough money to run the operation,’” recalls Mr. Willms.
Eight years later, in 2011, the VSO School of Music opened. It operates in what is now the Tovey Centre for Music.
Education wasn’t just about dreaming up buildings and overseeing programs; he was personally involved.
David Beauchesne, Vancouver-born president of the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra, recalls hearing his nephew in Vancouver tell him about seeing a concert with “Inspector Tovey.”
“I thought, really? The music director? Bramwell is doing family and kids’ concerts?” says Mr. Beauchesne. “That’s a rare thing.”
He was great with kids; he had three of his own – Ben, Jessica and Emmeline, all of whom inherited his musical prowess – and he married three times. He ultimately found a life partner in Verena de Neovel. “We only met late in life, but he referred to me as his soulmate, and I felt the same,” Ms. de Neovel told The Globe and Mail.
After Mr. Tovey left the VSO in 2018, he took on roles with several organizations, including the Rhode Island Philharmonic. He quickly put his artistic stamp on it, but his leadership was brief.
In May of 2019, Mr. Tovey was diagnosed with a rare form of sarcoma. He underwent surgery in June of 2021 that left him briefly cancer-free. But last January, scans confirmed it had returned. The cancer left him too weak to lead scheduled concerts in Rhode Island in April and May, but he rallied to conduct two pieces at the RI Philharmonic’s Joyful Future Gala on May 22. It would be his final concert.
He died at his home in Barrington, R.I., on July 12, the day after his 69th birthday.
“When you sit back and look at all he did, you think: ‘Holy, it’s astounding,’” says Mr. Estacio.
“All that in one lifetime? That’s incredible,” says Mr. Zukerman. “And he was so easy about it. He had no pretense. He was not a showoff.”
Bramwell Tovey was born in East London on July 11, 1953, to parents Bernard and Joan. His musical training began in Salvation Army bands, instilling in him a life-long love of brass instruments and choral music.
“I decided quite early on I wanted to be a conductor ... but I kept it to myself because I was embarrassed,” he told The Globe in 2013. “I didn’t think I’d be good enough to be professional, probably because of the class thing.”
He was only 15 when his father, a force in his life and musical education, died of cancer. The following week, at rehearsal with his youth orchestra, its leader asked if anyone wanted to try conducting. Mr. Tovey put up his hand. He conducted Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, which they had played the night before at the Christmas concert.
“It was an incredible experience. To have your first feeling of dropping the stick and hearing and feeling that power coming back, especially with your friends who are totally onside, it really was a Hollywood moment,” Mr. Tovey said.
Educated at the Royal Academy and the University of London, he started getting work with the London Symphony Orchestra.
In 1989, Mr. Tovey began what would be a transformative tenure, and life in Canada, at the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. He became a local celebrity, working to make culture fill the vacuum left by the departure of the Winnipeg Jets in 1996.
“For us music kids, he was sort of this god,” says Gordon Gerrard, who went on to be associate conductor at the VSO under Mr. Tovey.
In 1992, he established the groundbreaking Winnipeg New Music Festival, to feature and celebrate contemporary composers, including Canadians – a radical idea. Winnipeggers loved it. Even during that cold, cold winter, ticket sales were so strong, organizers were left scrambling at times.
Mr. Tovey figured that over his years with the festival, he conducted more than 250 world or Canadian premieres. “Read a score, hear it in your head, communicate that to players,” says Glenn Buhr, who was the festival’s curator and the WSO’s composer-in-residence. “Imagine that many premieres ... what you have to have in your brain to be able to pull that off.
“Bramwell’s the best conductor I’ve ever worked with. And I’ve worked with many, many conductors around the world.”
For Canadian composers, the festival, broadcast on CBC Stereo, was a gift. “It was a pivotal moment in music making in this country,” says Mr. Estacio, who entered a competition in the festival’s first year and won a commission to be played in its second year. A decade later, Mr. Tovey conducted the world premiere of Mr. Estacio’s (with librettist John Murrell) Filumena at Calgary Opera.
“He believed in the power of words and music together as being somehow greater than the sum of the parts,” says Kelly Robinson, who directed that world premiere, and then in 2011, the world premiere of Mr. Tovey’s own opera, The Inventor.
Among Mr. Tovey’s many compositions was the song cycle Ancestral Voices, written for Marion Newman, a Kwagiulth and Stó:lo mezzo-soprano with European heritage. He wanted to write a piece about reconciliation – with respect and without appropriation; he felt uneasy using words said or written by Indigenous people. So he told the story by using the disrespectful words about Indigenous people spoken by his own ancestors, showing their lack of understanding.
After its world premiere and a tour, it was performed at the VSO’s annual Canada Day concert in Whistler. “That was in 2017,” Ms. Newman says. “That was before we were thinking of Canada Day differently. He was already there.”
He was appointed to the Order of Canada, received honorary degrees, won two Juno Awards, and, in 2008, a Grammy Award for Barber/Korngold/Walton: Violin Concertos with James Ehnes and the VSO.
Mr. Ehnes, watching from home, saw Mr. Tovey deliver what he calls a beautiful speech, and take out his cellphone as he left the Grammy stage. Then Mr. Ehnes’s phone rang.
“That was a wonderful moment, sharing that kind of unique accolade with someone who was such a close friend and someone who had been such a guiding force in my career. It meant the world to me then and still does,” Mr. Ehnes said after Mr. Tovey’s death.
Mr. Tovey was a vocal cultural champion – and critic, taking officials and organizations to task if he felt they were letting their constituents down. Targets included the Vancouver School Board for a proposal to cut music education; the CBC for dismantling its Radio Orchestra; Vancouver Opera for moving to a festival format instead of presenting full seasons; and the Canadian Opera Company, which Mr. Tovey felt should better support Canadian composers.
He walked away from the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics after learning the music recorded by the VSO would be mimed by others during the live ceremony. “To plagiarize somebody else’s recording – to mime it and pretend that it’s you – is absolutely on a par with Ben Johnson’s fraud,” he said, referring to the Canadian athlete who tested positive for steroids and lost his Olympic gold.
After Mr. Tovey left the VSO in 2018, he took on several roles, including artistic director for Calgary Opera. He had to step down from Calgary because of his health, but was able to maintain other positions, including principal conductor and artistic director in Rhode Island and principal guest conductor at the Orchestre symphonique de Québec.
He was working on a violin concerto for Mr. Ehnes, a commission from the National Arts Centre Orchestra, but was unable to finish it, as his health deteriorated. “It was a gift to have that project, and to catch glimpses of where the music was going,” says Mr. Ehnes.
Mr. Tovey died surrounded by loved ones, listening to some of his favourite brass-band music, including The Kingdom Triumphant by Eric Ball. Daughter Jess played the piano; Emma sang.
In Ottawa, the National Arts Centre lowered its flags to half-mast. And on social media, there was an outpouring of shock, grief and praise; recognition for what Mr. Tovey had done for many musicians. Person after person posted something to the effect of: I owe him so much.
“We need these mentors now more than ever. I’m sorry he went so fast,” says Mr. Zukerman. “It’s sad. It’s sad for music.”
Maestro Tovey leaves his children Ben, Jessica, Emmeline; his partner Verena de Neovel; his grandchildren Samson and Florence; his sisters Liz and Jane; his nieces and nephew.
The VSO has established the Bramwell Tovey Memorial Fund to continue his musical legacy. The Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra will establish a fund in his name for its music school and its 2022-2023 season will be dedicated to his memory.
Editor’s note: The name of Mr. Tovey’s composition "Ancestral Voices" has been corrected from an earlier version of this story.