Bramwell Tovey, composer and conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra – obituary

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Bramwell Tovey leading the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 2012 - Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images
Bramwell Tovey leading the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 2012 - Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

Bramwell Tovey, who has died aged 69, was a British orchestral conductor and composer who spent much of his career popularising classical music in Canada; latterly his impeccably clear beat was deployed to good effect on these shores as principal conductor since 2018 of the BBC Concert Orchestra, including directing them in a programme of 20th-century British film music at last year’s Proms.

Tovey, a versatile and charismatic figure, first came to prominence in 1986 when he was a last-minute substitute for Lukas Foss at the opening night of the London Symphony Orchestra’s 1986 Leonard Bernstein Festival. One critic described it as “the sort of glittering opportunity ambitious young conductors dream about”, adding that Tovey “seized it with distinction”.

Bernstein, who was present, subsequently invited the young maestro to attend his classes that summer at Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

While much of Tovey’s work was on the lighter end of the classical-music spectrum with themed programmes such as Viennese nights, he was equally adept in more hardcore repertoire.

In 2008 he presented a Beethoven Festival with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (VSO) featuring all nine of the composer’s symphonies as well as concertos with soloists including the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and the pianist Lang Lang. He also conducted the premiere of Penderecki’s Eighth Symphony with the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra, where he was music director from 2002 to 2006.

Yet he drew the line at deception, refusing to take part at the opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver when the organising committee suggested that the music should be pre-recorded and mimed at the event itself. “I felt it was dishonesty. I thought it was fraudulent,” he told the Globe and Mail. The VSO was still heard at the Games, having recorded all 98 national anthems of the competing countries for the medal ceremonies.

Bramwell Tovey leading the New York Philharmonic in "A Gershwin Celebration" at Avery Fisher Hall on New Year's Eve 2014 - Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images
Bramwell Tovey leading the New York Philharmonic in "A Gershwin Celebration" at Avery Fisher Hall on New Year's Eve 2014 - Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

Bramwell Bernard Tovey was born into a Salvation Army family in Ilford, Essex, on July 11 1953, the son of Bernard Tovey and his wife Joan (née Barker). He was educated at Ilford County High School before studying piano and composition at the Royal Academy of Music, where he also took up the tuba.

He was appointed staff conductor at London Festival Ballet, where he worked with Léonide Massine and Rudolf Nureyev. In 1978 he joined Scottish Ballet and from 1984 to 1988 was principal conductor of Sadler’s Wells Ballet while also helping to revive the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company.

In 1989 he became music director of Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, the beginning of an association with Canadian orchestras in which he endeared himself to both players and audiences. “Before beginning a piece he would turn to the audiences and deliver what was absolutely the most articulate, entertaining and informative introduction to the music that any of us had ever heard,” recalled one critic in 2000 when Tovey left to become music director of the VSO for the next 18 years.

Off the podium he was involved in community life and in person could be even more charming than on stage. He was a great teller of jokes and anecdotes, using the nickname Inspector Tovey for children’s concerts and claiming that his nose was misshapen from playing football not from bad reviews.

Yet he was not a maestro to cross swords with. One critic recalled Tovey using his “view from the podium” column in the printed concert programme to give said critic “reason to think that maybe one of these days he’d like to rearrange my nose”.

Meanwhile, Tovey was also beavering away at his composition, producing a ballet arrangement of Rossini’s Cinderella, a Cello Concerto for the Winnipeg orchestra and the soundtrack to the Canadian film Eighteen (2006) that was nominated for the Canadian Genie Awards. During his third season at Winnipeg he started a festival of new music, turning it into an international event while still emphasising Canadian composers.

He was keen to popularise classical music, a desire that fitted well with his appointment at the BBC CO, whom he conducted in a series of inspiring family concerts as well as in a programme of “women’s words and voices” for the BBC Four series Inside Classical. Last year he was also appointed music director of the Sarasota Orchestra in Florida.

Tovey was equally well known in the brass-band world, including as artistic director of the National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain. On one occasion he was due to rehearse them in Norwich when word came that a couple getting married in an adjacent room were in urgent need of a pianist because theirs was stuck in traffic. After a quick discussion with the groom Tovey sat at the grand piano in his shorts and sandals to save the day, generating newspaper headline around the world.

Bramwell Tovey was appointed an honorary Officer of the Order of Canada in 2013. He is survived by his wife Lana (née Penner) and their two daughters, and by a son from a previous marriage.

Bramwell Tovey, born July 11 1953, died July 12 2022