Late maestro Tovey leaves magical musical memories
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/09/2022 (264 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
On July 12, the classical music world lost a towering giant, the brilliant English conductor and composer Bramwell Tovey, who served as the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s music director from 1989 through 2001.
This force of nature — once hailed by the legendary Leonard Bernstein as “a great hero of mine” and the “best of the best” by WSO’s current maestro Daniel Raiskin — counted being the co-architect, with composer Glenn Buhr, of the internationally acclaimed Winnipeg New Music Festival as part of his enduring legacy.
Having battled a rare form of sarcoma since his initial 2019 diagnosis, Tovey finally succumbed to his illness one day after his 69th birthday in July of this year. His death sent shockwaves around the world, including in Barrington, R.I., where he had been living while serving as principal conductor and artistic director for the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra, among others at the time.
The Grammy- and Juno-winning musician, who was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2013, was enormously charismatic, a man who made it feel like he was your best mate chumming at the local pub.
Tovey touched countless lives throughout his career; everyone who met him has their own stories to share.
Here are a few of mine.
In addition to all his magnificent WSO performances over the years — including his final appearance opening the 2019 Winnipeg New Music Festival after 18 years away from the local stage — I was once privileged to witness him leading the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, which he helmed from 2000 to 2018.
I ventured to Vancouver’s Orpheum Theatre’s backstage to say hello and Tovey welcomed me with open arms, immediately reminiscing about the WSO and his years spent in Winnipeg. He never forgot a soul, regardless of how much time had passed, and any joyful encounter always felt like old home week.
Will anyone ever forget the public sendoff the WSO gave Tovey back on May 13, 2001, in which the capacity audience of 2,305 belted out, a cappella style, Red River Valley as a final farewell?
This old country tune, immortalized by “singing cowboy” Gene Autry, capped the night with heartfelt emotion as it became our turn to make music for the maestro.
What about the buzzing excitement when he blew into town on May 23, 2018, during the VSO’s three-city Canadian tour — a concert headlined by Brandon’s pride, superstar violinist James Ehnes. Brahms’ Hungarian Rhapsody No. 5 will never sound quite the same again, as the maestro held nothing back during this all-guns-blazing encore.
But there’s an even more personal connection to my late father, Neil Harris, that speaks to the proverbial “measure of a man.”
Readers with long memories will recall that my dad served as the Free Press’s music critic — penning this same column — between 1986 and 1996, and in whose computer keystrokes I proudly follow.
My father had the deepest admiration and respect for Tovey’s artistry. The feeling was mutual right until the end. Before my dad’s death from ALS in May 2000, Tovey flew in on his own dime from the West Coast to perform a profoundly moving piano solo of Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle during Neil’s magical tribute evening on Jan. 14, 1997. That personal gift literally brought tears to my dad’s eyes.
Years later, in November 2006, the maestro once again travelled here from Vancouver to host our successful fundraising gala concert, also featuring WSO’s incomparable concertmaster Gwen Hoebig, under the auspices of the University of Winnipeg Foundation. This event helped establish the Neil Harris Bursary, awarded annually to a University of Winnipeg student in the creative arts.
It continues to flourish and thrive to this day, thanks in no small part to Tovey’s boundless generosity of spirit.
In return, my dad once composed a rip-roaring orchestral work for Tovey called — wait for it — Bramwell Tovey’s Ragtime Band that paid homage to the maestro’s humble roots as a euphonium player in a “silver band” growing up in his native London. (Owing to unforeseen copyright issues with Irving Berlin’s fiercely protective estate, the piece, sadly, has never seen the light of day, existing only as a printed manuscript in my own tickle trunk of treasures — now a poignant souvenir of these two great musical lives.)
We spoke of many things during our last telephone interview for the Free Press in January 2019 — Tovey had recently begun his tenure as Calgary Opera’s artistic director, still making time in his jam-packed schedule to chat from his Alberta office — including his Prairie roots and his ongoing, tireless advocacy for the arts.
But mostly, I remember so clearly the pride in his voice as he shared news of his three children, Ben, Jessica and Emmeline, their own budding musical careers and his excitement around another passion project, the creation of the VSO-affiliated School of Music in 2011. (The school’s centre for symphonic programs was renamed the Tovey Centre for Music in December 2019.)
In theatre, there is an old tradition of the “ghost light,” an industrial lamp that illuminates the empty stage all night as a practical safety measure. And yes, one is placed onstage like a watchful sentinel after every show at our very own concert hall.
One poetical belief is that these ethereal lights also represent the spirits of dearly missed artists who have gone before. It’s a thought I find delicious, as it speaks to the fleeting, temporal nature of the performing arts, much like life itself.
Now ostensibly “living” as light, those who have departed this mortal coil leave a quiet presence behind in our halls that resonates, and will continue to do so for years to come.
Perhaps this is far too fanciful for any public musing. However, the fact is that these beloved musicians have given us a legacy of joy, a treasure trove of cherished memories stemming from their own love of music, leaving an imprint on our hearts and minds forever.
From this valley they say you are going
We will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile
For they say you are taking the sunshine
That has brightened our pathway the while.
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