Death of maestro Bramwell Tovey hits home in Vancouver

·4 min read
Bramwell Tovey was loved and respected by many in B.C., described by colleagues and students as a passionate musician, excellent teacher and strong advocate for music education. (Submitted by VSO - image credit)
Bramwell Tovey was loved and respected by many in B.C., described by colleagues and students as a passionate musician, excellent teacher and strong advocate for music education. (Submitted by VSO - image credit)

Bramwell Tovey, the longest-serving music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (VSO), died on Tuesday at age 69, a day after his birthday.

Tovey, who was born in the U.K., served as the VSO's music director from 2000 to 2018, and was a pillar of B.C.'s classical and contemporary music scene as an artistic director, mentor and teacher. He was also a fierce advocate for music education.

"An 18-year tenure as music director ... deeply shaped, not only the orchestra, the repertoire, the audiences, the donors. It re-shaped the entire landscape of the city and the province," Angela Elster, president and CEO of the orchestra and music school, said in an interview.

"He was an icon in British Columbia and Western Canada."

Elster met Tovey when she worked for the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. She says Tovey — along with the VSO's former board chair Art Willms, and former president and CEO Jeff Alexander — had pitched the idea of a music school in Vancouver.

That led to the VSO School of Music, which launched in 2003. The school has a symphonic program named in Tovey's honour.

When the province considered removing the music curriculum from public schools, Elster says Tovey adamantly opposed the idea and fought for music education as a "human right."

Submitted by the VSO
Submitted by the VSO

She says she's committed to carrying on the late conductor's passion for supporting the next generation of musicians in her role with the symphony and the school.

"He would want us to not only keep his legacy alive and keep going, but to do even better," she said.

According to the Sarasota Orchestra, where Tovey had been music director since 2021, Tovey was diagnosed with a rare form of sarcoma in 2019, and after surgical intervention was cancer-free.

But the cancer returned in January and he was unable to recover, the statement read.

Former students, colleagues look back

Peggy Hua says she met Tovey years ago, when he invited the UBC Choir to perform with the VSO. She went on to take conducting classes with him.

Hua — ensemble and special event co-ordinator at the VSO and artistic director and conductor of the B.C. Chinese Choir — remembers Tovey using her as an example for how to hold a conducting baton with a relaxed pinky finger.

"It was amazing. He shared a lot and he was very generous with his comments," she said, holding back tears.

"[He was] very encouraging to young conductors."

LISTEN | Remembering VSO's Bramwell Tovey

Denise Ball, former executive producer for CBC Music, describes Tovey as "a fantastic musician."

Ball worked with Tovey on some of his own productions and a number of VSO recording projects.

"He was incredibly funny and he had a quickness of wit and a mind that was just faster than anybody's," she said.

"That made [him] partly a challenge to work with but also a total joy."

Long list of accomplishments

Tovey brought the VSO on tours around the world and conducted full cycles of Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler symphonies with the ensemble throughout the Lower Mainland.

Before coming to Vancouver, he was the music director of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra from 1989 to 2000 and helped launched the symphony's widely renowned New Music Festival.

At the time of his death, Tovey was the music director of the Sarasota Orchestra. He was also working as the artistic director of the Rhode Island Philharmonic, and principal guest conductor of the Orchestre symphonique de Québec and the BBC Concert Orchestra.

Tovey won a Juno award in 2003 for best classical composition, and in 2008 he brought home a Grammy award with the VSO for the best instrumental soloist category — featuring soloist James Ehnes, for a CBC Records album of violin concertos.

In 2013, he was appointed an honorary officer of the Order of Canada.

Submitted by the VSO
Submitted by the VSO

Elstel says the VSO is adding a piece to their concert at Burnaby's Deer Lake this Saturday as a tribute to Tovey.

She says there will eventually be a full memorial concert, and another VSO School of Music event so students and emerging artists can pay their respects.

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