In the spotlight...
A Man For All Occasions...
Bramwell Tovey and bridegroom, Sam Taylor and bride, Lucy Stubbs...
Bramwell Tovey and bridegroom, Sam Taylor and bride, Lucy Stubbs...

Bramwell Tovey: A man for all occasions


You may have heard Bramwell Tovey is top of the news in England, heralded a national hero for saving the wedding of two perfect strangers.

The conductor of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra was in Norwich, England, last Saturday rehearsing with the National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain. He was driving back to his hotel when he got an urgent request from a member of the band.

A local piano player had cancelled on a wedding. Could the maestro perhaps drop by the nuptials and save the day?

Tovey didn't think twice. He made an illegal U-turn and drove to the church, arriving with five minutes to spare.

The relieved groom, Sam Taylor, told the Telegraph he was wowed: "He was just fantastic. He walked in, lifted up the lid and began playing, almost as if it had all been planned."

The bride, Lucy Stubbs, hadn't a clue who Tovey was: "It was the weirdest stroke of fate. I was full of wedding nerves so I did not really take much notice of who was playing the piano. It was only when we got home and looked him up on the Internet that we realized he is world-renowned."

Tovey may be one of the world's great conductors. The VSO is his home but between performances he's often on the road conducting for the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Symphony and other orchestras. But this is a guy who traces his roots to playing in the Salvation Army Band. He's never lost the common touch.

I got a first-hand taste of that at a VSO concert. I was invited backstage and Tovey wandered up, still in his blacktails, his shirt soaked from sweat.

"Why don't you join us for a drink?" he asked.

Why not, I thought? I don't often get to meet a world-renowned conductor. So I wandered over to the Wedgewood Hotel, where Tovey likes to do post-show entertaining.

I wasn't sure what to expect, really. Polite discussion about the concert? A lecture on classical music? Maestros have been known to be insufferable egomaniacs.

What it turned out to be was two hours of absolute hilarity.

As the drinks flowed, Tovey began riffing on the craziness of the classical world. Here's one of his insider yarns: The great conductor, Arturo Toscanini, was preparing the BBC Orchestra for a performance of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. But Toscanini didn't care for the oboe player's performance, Tovey recounted.

"No, no, no! Play eeet again," thundered Tovey, imitating Toscanini's booming Italian accent.

The oboist played it again.

"No, no, no!"

The oboist had another go.

"No, no, no, no!" Toscanini screamed. "Basta, basta, basta. Get out! Get out! Get out!"

The shell-shocked oboist packed up and headed for the exit, Tovey said. But with each step his rage darkened. "Wait a minute," the oboist said to himself, "I'm the world's greatest oboist. l don't have to take this crap."

So he stopped, turned and screamed across the hall.

"F--- you, Toscanini!"

The world's greatest conductor, never breaking his rhythm, glanced back over his shoulder and said: "Too late to apologize!"

We were in hysterics. It was a typical Tovey moment. If he wasn't a conductor, he could be a stand-up comic.

So, hearing about Tovey standing in for a piano player at the wedding of two perfect strangers, I had to call up and ask.

When I reached him, Tovey had just got off the phone with more British reporters. His good Samaritan moment has become national news. "I guess it's a slow August for news in Britain," remarked Tovey in his dry, British accent.

Then the maestro was back in storytelling mode.

When he arrived at the wedding, everyone was dressed up. He sat down at the grand piano in his shorts, golf T-shirt and sandals with no sheets of music. As he played some Rachmaninoff for the bride and groom as they made their vows he realized, "I look a mess," and he began drifting into one of his recurring nightmares.

"It was like one of those anxiety dreams," said Tovey. "I'm standing in front of the New York Philharmonic. They're all wearing tails and I'm still wearing my pyjamas."

Then he moved on to an amusing riff about the worth of a conductor in a tight spot. "Sometimes when I am on a plane, with my wife, Lana," Tovey said, he'll hear the pilot ask for a doctor to deal with an on-board medical emergency.

"Lana will say to me, 'Why don't you go up and see if the pilot needs some music?' It's a joke between us. Conducting music is so useless in an emergency."

Most of the time.

"I guess I finally got my chance to come to the rescue."

At that point there's somebody at the door. The maestro's having lunch with friends and he's got to go.

Before he does, I can't resist.

"Hey Bramwell," I say, "I'm having a party next week and the piano player isn't available. How about filling in?"

"So, sorry," says the maestro, without missing a beat. "I'm booked at the Hollywood Bowl next week. It'll have to be this week, I'm afraid."

© (c) CanWest MediaWorks Publications Inc.

Miro Cernetig,
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