British Expat of the Month: Composer Bramwell Tovey, From Essex to the Hollywood Bowl

Bramwell Tovey (Photo: David Cooper)

Bramwell Tovey (Photo: David Cooper)

In the world of classical music, it’s rather unusual for the conductor to have a friendly fireside chat with the audience before the concert begins, but for British conductor, composer and pianist Bramwell Tovey, making a connection with the hundreds or thousands of people out there seems to be an important part of his job.

As the reviews for his recent concerts conducting the L.A. Philharmonic point out, he not only keeps up a flow of information about the works, but also a stream of witty — and sometimes awful — jokes, usually at the expense of himself or the British in general: “Strangely, talking to the audience is something that I hardly ever did in the U.K. When I arrived at my first North American orchestra in Winnipeg, Canada, I was asked to speak and just spoke to the audience in the same way I’d address house guests who’d come to dinner. But it’s very important not to appear pompous or superior — standing on that wooden box can give you an exalted sense of self if you’re not careful.”

At work, rehearsal times are also something different. In the U.K. there is often only one rehearsal of three hours, while in the U.S. there are four or five rehearsals of 2½ hours duration for every program — something he feels that helps a conductor “take greater risks in performance and go a little deeper.” Finally, he says that standing ovations are a much more common occurrence in the U.S. than the U.K.

Though currently based in Vancouver, Canada — where he has been Music Director of the Vancouver Symphony since 2000 — he regularly criss-crosses the continent for the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Philadelphia and Cleveland Orchestras and the Boston Symphony.

Born in Ilford, Essex, he was educated at the Royal Academy of Music and the University of London, and has lived in North America since 1989. He first conducted in the U.S. in 1985 when he came over as Principal Conductor with the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet: “I was overwhelmed by the choice of food, the warmth of the people (no one cared what accent you had, as long as it was “English”) and the size of the place, and though we only touched cities in the East — Boston, New York, Cleveland, Miami — there was so much variation.”

Decades later, it’s almost impossible to say which venue he prefers. “There are so many great halls,” he says. “Symphony Hall, Boston and Walt Disney Hall in LA are probably my favorites, although I love the new hall in Nashville and the old traditional halls in St Louis and San Diego; America has more great outside venues than any other country in the world. Then there’s Tanglewood, Bethel Woods, Saratoga, the Gerald Ford Pavilion in Vail, Colorado, and the Hollywood Bowl. They’re all exceptional for different reasons.”

Despite having been away from England for many years, there is one thing he misses — and a question he always needs answered: “What’s the cricket score? In the 1990s it was hard to keep in touch with the Ashes and the county cricket circuit. Inevitably, you were up to a week behind until the papers arrived. Now, I probably watch more cricket and listen into the BBC’s Test Match Special more than I did when I lived back home.”

He also has some of advice for Brits coming to the U.S. – and even some hungry expats:

1. “Forget keeping up with the Joneses. Although there is a class system here in the USA, I feel it is a real meritocracy. People are just as pleased to welcome you to the top of society if you have humble origins, as long as you’ve got there by working hard.”

2. “Make sure you have proper health insurance. I had a driver in LA who was having to work night and day to pay off a $7000 hospital fee having taken the risk of doing without it.”

3. “Buy Mary Berry’s cookbook for those great traditional British dishes that you just can’t get in the U.S.A. Yorkshire pudding and Eton Mess are perfect for homesickness.”

He has also managed to locate that elusive perfect curry: “I was lucky enough to be taken to the “Sapphire” by Zarin Mehta, former President of the New York Philharmonic, who was born in Bombay. It was my greatest Indian dining experience – even better than in India itself.”

However, a decent pint has remained elusive. “As for beer, well, there is nowhere on the entire continent as good as the average English real ale village pub. Sorry, but it has to be said that there isn’t enough warm beer in North America. However, that can be forgiven in lieu of Napa Valley.”

Tovey doesn’t visit the U.K. as often since his mother passed away, but when there on vacation he crams in as much as he can: “I miss the countryside, country walks, country pubs and villages mostly, but I’ll next be there for a week in October doing a string of concerts with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. I’m looking forward to staying in the center of London, probably near Piccadilly, and catching as much as I can theater and music-wise between my own concerts.“