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Maestro Tovey rings in 2020 with humor & musical class

British composer-conductor Bramwell Tovey
(photo: courtesy Philadelphia Orchestra)


British conductor Bramwell Tovey was back on the Philadelphia Orchestra podium for a spirited ‘musical tour around to globe’ on New Year’s Eve.  Tovey has a unique relationship with the Fabulous Philadelphians; he has composed new music in both classical & jazz genre, he has guested as piano soloist and his sharp wit continues to delight Philly audiences when he leads the orchestra’s year end holiday programs, always bringing surprises on top of the traditional seasonal classical fare.

True to form, maestro Tovey rang out the ragged decade with a rousing NYE concert in Verizon Hall, peppered of course with his wry asides. The first half of the program plum with showpieces from Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Brahms, and the second half the inevitable Strauss waltz carousel, with a piece of Mahler as the entre-acte.

To open, Tovey bounded to the podium and launched the band into the rousing orchestral fireworks of George Gershwin’s ‘Strike Up the Band.’ After-which he picked up the microphone and had the audience laughing right out of the gate with some ribbing about the antics of the coming Mummers parade and even working in a loaded line about New Jersey drivers coming to town for the cine-bomb movie ‘Cats.’

He told the wayward maritime tale of how Rimsky-Korsakov composed ‘’Capriccio espanole’ when the Russian composer was then a merchant marine’ who never actually set foot in Spain, but heard the music from his ship off harbored off shore, “Isn’t that what they all say?” he quipped. But adding Tovey how brilliant a Spanish-Russian symphonic fusion Rimsky-Korsakov made. Tovey’s interpretive detailing bringing it to its full musical dimensions in the fast shifting tempos and stellar orchestral passagio. Among the outstanding soloists Peter Smith (oboe), Patrick Williams (flute) and Associate concert master Juliet Kang, essaying those haunting gypsy lead violin lines.

Tovey set up the fantasy story of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake about a Prince falling in love with a Swan, joking all the way, but also noted that he was playing the composer’s original version which had been tampered with on the ballet stage many times after Tchaikovsky’s death   ‘He’s a de-composer now.’  but adding that his ballet music is “So transparent…in expressing the tenderest feelings of love.”

In Tchaikovsky’s original Act II ‘White Swan’ pas de duex- The harp -violin dialogue representing the Prince/Swan duet onstage.  Juliet Kang’s violin and Elizabeth Hainen’s harp were dancing on air and into our souls.  The orchestral elements though proved a bit wayward in this arrangement. An unscheduled infant’s soft crying was heard from the balcony (like Baby new year trying to bust in early, no?), it was, indeed, a magical moment in Verizon Hall.   

As urbane as the maestro is he is also not afraid to bring a POPs Orchestra sentimentality via in waltz miniatures by American composer Leroy Anderson in works including ‘Belle of the Ball’, ‘Forgotten Dreams. ‘ Then the fireworks of ‘Bugler’s Holiday.’ The last a virtuoso walk in the park for trumpet trio Robert Curnow, Tony Prist and principal David Bilger, returning to the orchestra after recovering from shoulder reconstruction and leading those staccato triplet lines in fine form. Later, Bilger also stellar in the trumpet solos in Gustav Mahler’s tone poem ‘Blumine’ that opened the concert’s second half.

The highlight of the entire concert was Brahms’ Hungarian Dance’ no. 5. In the 1938 arrangement byMartin Schmeling. As in the Rimsky-Korsakov, Tovey showcasing the dynamics of the orchestra in top form, as well as the brilliance of the music.

“A chance to have a fresh start and begin again.’ and ‘Let’s have a good time tonight.” Sincere sentiments from the maestro in light of the fact that Tovey told arts journalist Susan Lewis for the live NYE broadcast on WRTI that he had missed a half year of conducting because he had just recovered from cancer treatments. And in light of that it is particularly inspiring to observe how dancerly maestro Tovey continues to be in performance. 

For Johan Strauss’ ‘Emperor’s Waltz’ Tovey set the scene for us to imagine being a lady in a 19th Vienna ballroom waiting for the Viennese gentleman-officer to ask you to dance and raising your hand reach his in “long white gloves covering up most of your tattoos.”

Strauss’ The Kunster Quadril’  a waltz mash of 19h century greatest hits tropes of Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, & Schubert, which Tovey dubbed “classical elevator music.” but made it more than a pastiche piece.  

On Johan & Josef Strauss’s ‘Pizzicato Polka’ which Tovey announced he was recreating his first time conducting with many “bad habits then.” He hilariously (& lithely) emoted through the music as he wielded two batons and characterized the music ala- la- Looney Tunes maestro. The comedy continued with the Strauss Champagne Polka, punctuated by a cork popping instrument, but Tovey also brandishing a bottle of fine bubbly popping the last cork note almost on cue and pouring the wine into flutes then handing out glasses to cellist Yumi Kendall who just got married ‘to a wonderful man’ Tovey enthused. Then slugging back a glass himself, complete with a soft-shoe spin on the podium.

The concert closer, inescapably ‘Blue Danube‘  that waltz to dance us into a new decade.  The encore which the British Tovey introduced in a Scottish B(urr)ogue of “Rrrobbie Burns”  Auld Lang Syne. Tovey raising his voice in song, his eyes sparking with hope and resignation for us all to face the music and dance.