OBITUARY



BRAMWELL TOVEY
11th July 1953 – 12th July 2022

Roderick Elms pays a personal tribute to Bramwell Tovey

Bramwell Tovey was my lifelong friend – he was a friend to countless others around the world. He passed away peacefully in Rhode Island in the US on 12th July following a long struggle with cancer. Bram enjoyed a distinguished career as a conductor – one which, in 2018, led him to the role of Principal Conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra.

Many will know Bram's charismatic expertise, good humour and tact when working with orchestras – his easy-going yet totally professional understanding of the needs of the players. This emanated from having spent much time in his younger days playing in orchestras. He understood the delights and frustrations that could result from unsympathetic direction. With early roots in the London Festival Ballet and Scottish Ballet companies, his distinguished career led him to regular engagements with most of the UK's major orchestras. Bram conducted the first season of the revived D'Oyly Carte Opera Company in 1988 before settling for many years in Canada as Music Director of the Winnipeg Symphony (1989–2001), where I was delighted to join him for concerto performances in 1998 – he was always a consummate accompanist and knew instinctively where you were heading as a soloist, whether at the front of the stage or within the orchestra. In 2002 he became Music Director of the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra (until 2006), and in the same year he also became Music Director of the Vancouver Symphony, where he stayed until 2018 – becoming Music Director Emeritus. Prior to his appointment in Vancouver, I was more than a little amused to receive a call from a member of the orchestra's management, in effect, asking me for a reference! Bram conducted most of the North American orchestras – being the principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Hollywood Bowl summer concerts and one of the most frequent guest conductors of the New York Philharmonic. Since 2018, he had been Principal Conductor and Artistic Director of the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra, and he was to become Music Director of the Sarasota Orchestra from the 2022–2023 season.

Most aspects of Bram's early life were centred around the Salvation Army (his parents were both staunch members), and it's not surprising that he played the tuba and developed a close affiliation with the brass band tradition in this country – in particular, the Foden's Band of which he was president. He was Artistic Director of the National Youth Brass Band from 2006 until 2020, with which for many years, my wife Joanna Smith and I had the pleasure of joining as accompanists for their annual solo competition. As well as his legendary conducting skills, Bram was also a superb pianist and a prolific and highly respected composer. His compositions have featured in concerts and broadcasts around the world. He was also the most amazing raconteur, relating stories and presenting or narrating concerts with aplomb – holding audiences in the palm of his hand.

Bram grew up in Ilford, Essex, where he was actively involved in local music-making through the Redbridge Youth Orchestra, in which he played the tuba. As for many of us of that generation, Bram would be the first to say that he owed much of his later musical life experience to the London Borough of Redbridge's then Music Adviser, Malcolm Bidgood OBE. While still a student at the Royal Academy of Music, Bram formed a local orchestra called 'Concerti Allegri' (Joyful Concerts), with which he conducted some wonderful performances, including Holst's suite 'The Planet's' in 1974 (Simon Rattle was playing the glockenspiel, but that's another story). He went on to play the tuba on a freelance basis with the London Symphony Orchestra – an orchestra which he was later to conduct on many occasions in the mid-to-late 80s. He was also one of the six members of the 'Internationally Unknown Gnaff Ensemble', giving some outrageous performances to unsuspecting audiences across the South East. Bram was very much the 'front man' – presenting the performances, frequently playing lesser-known instruments such as the 'electric' cor anglais, and singing solo vocals – notably on our Christmas single 'We Free Kings', released on Ffang Records and which we performed for London Weekend Television on Boxing Day 1982.

Bramwell Tovey is a legend to those of us who grew up with him and also to a world of musicians and music lovers – he was universally admired and respected for his musicianship and generosity of nature. We had the pleasure of making music together on countless occasions with various orchestras as well as on less formal occasions – 'Friday Night's Music Night' for the BBC in the 90s, Litolff's 'Scherzo' with the London Philharmonic at the Royal Festival Hall, concerts with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and as recently as March this year, some contemporary repertoire with the BBC Concert Orchestra from the Queen Elizabeth Hall for Radio 3. I have a particular memory which displays Bram's quick and dry whit – we were in a private piano rehearsal for Radio 2 with a 'Prima Dona' American soprano, apparently famed for her musical-theatre performances. She was being very demanding, requesting notes and weird changes of tempo, all without a please or thank-you. Bram and I were both getting somewhat irritated by her rudeness. There came a point when, for the umpteenth time, she said, "Gimme a G". I replied, "Anything else?" thinking that some sort of pleasantry might be forthcoming. She slammed her hand down on the piano and screamed, "Just gimme a G". Unfortunately, her coffee was on top of the upright piano – the cup fell over, spilling its contents all over her music. Bram's typically dry-witted response: "Oh dear."

Bram's first concert with the BBCCO was from the Watford Colosseum – I was seated at the organ for Elgar's 'Enigma Variations'. He took great delight in announcing to the entire Radio 3 audience that on the first occasion that he performed this work, he was sitting at the back playing the organ, and I was on the rostrum, conducting. Bram conducted for my last album, 'A Windy Christmas', and we had been planning that he would record my new symphony of which he is the dedicatee. Bram was 'Best Man' at my wedding in 2007, giving a speech which was predictably true to form. A few days earlier, we had both been in the Covent Garden branch of Moss Bross collecting our suits. Also in there was Sir Nicholas Soames, grandson of Sir Winston Churchill – Bram thought this to be the most wonderful portent of things to come.

Bramwell Tovey was a kind, generous and compassionate friend to so many, and his passing will leave a great void in our lives, but he leaves us with some truly wonderful memories. My thoughts and condolences are with his family – sisters Liz and Jane and their families, his son Ben, daughters Jessica and Emmeline, and his partner Verena who has been the most extraordinary support to Bram during these past few challenging years.

RIP, my dear friend.

Copyright 2022 Roderick Elms


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