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Bramwell Tovey

About this Artist

In Memoriam 

Bramwell Tovey (1953–2022)

In July, the Hollywood Bowl and the Los Angeles Philharmonic lost a dear friend and creative colleague when Bramwell Tovey died of cancer the day after his 69th birthday. A master communicator in both music and speech, the conductor/pianist/composer had been a popular figure at the Bowl for almost 20 years, beloved by audiences and critics alike for his expressive music-making in a broad repertory and for his witty, engaging introductions. 

“By the time I’ve walked out, bowed, conducted the ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’ and everyone’s sat down, it doesn’t look like anything much but actually you’ve already sort of sampled the Bowl experience,” Tovey said in 2014. “When I speak to the audience for the first time, I can see everyone right to the back, and if it’s packed, that’s 18,000 people. As soon as it gets dark, the only people I can see are in the front seats, but you can feel this tremendous energy coming at you and it’s absolutely thrilling.” 

Tovey was born in a London suburb, and he began serious piano study at age seven. He received formal training at the Royal Academy of Music and the University of London, and his early career was spent mostly in the theater, with the London Festival Ballet, the Scottish Ballet, the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, and the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. His family has deep roots in the Salvation Army, and Tovey learned to play all of the brass instruments in Salvation Army bands, which also taught him his improvisational skills and how to hold an audience with words. 

“You can bore people so easily. You need humor, like you’d use at a dinner party,” Tovey has said. “You want to keep it in intelligent layperson’s language and spice it up with the odd line—and you have to know when to shut up; that’s terribly important, too.”  

Tovey was music director of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (for 18 years, before becoming music director emeritus), and the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra, with which he conducted the world premiere of Penderecki’s Symphony No. 8. He was principal conductor and artistic director of the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra at his death, and the 2022/23 season was to have been his first as music director of the Sarasota Orchestra. 

As a composer, Tovey has written viola and cello concertos, an opera, a film score, and many brass-band pieces. He won a Juno (Canada’s Grammy equivalent) for his Requiem for a Charred Skull. The LA Phil co-commissioned Urban Runway, a sassy orchestral cakewalk that he conducted at the Bowl twice, including its West Coast premiere. 

Tovey made his Bowl debut in 2003, and in 2008 he began his tenure as Principal Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. (He also conducted the LA Phil downtown, making his Walt Disney Concert Hall debut in 2007.) He also played piano at the Bowl several times, as the soloist in Rhapsody in Blue and accompanying songs. 

“I’m tremendously excited about it—love the orchestra,” Tovey said when he was appointed to his titled position with the LA Phil. “They are a very, very friendly and welcoming group, and making music with them is a real pleasure. … And, of course, it’s an incredible institution, the Hollywood Bowl. Here, when you’re in the conductor’s room waiting to go onstage, there’s a huge picture on the wall of Otto Klemperer conducting the LA Phil at the Bowl in, I think, 1948. So, here’s this great master conductor, who was a Jewish refugee from the Nazis, personal friend and assistant to Gustav Mahler, and his portrait hangs in the conductor’s room of him conducting on the stage where you’re about to go. For me, that’s a fantastic tradition.” 

Bramwell Tovey is now a distinguished part of the tradition himself, and he will be missed by all here. —John Henken