New Sarasota Orchestra music director designate Bramwell Tovey had several reasons to be kindly disposed to our city even before his arrival here for his first concert as a guest conductor, back in February 2020. For one thing, the British-born Tovey, 68, knew The Sarasota Ballet’s Iain Webb and Margaret Barbieri from working together in the 1980s while both were performing at Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet in London. Another strong relationship had also been forged years ago with violinist James Ehnes, an area resident with whom Tovey shared a Grammy in 2008 for their recording of concertos by Barber, Korngold and Sir William Walton.
Then, Tovey finally visited the city for the first time to lead the orchestra on Walton’s difficult First Symphony. “I told them beforehand that we would need an extra rehearsal for that,” recalled Tovey, in a Zoom interview from Bavaria, where he snatched a week’s holiday from his schedule. “Normally, the first time through a piece, you need to stop and start. But the musicians were so prepared, we just ran through it.” Impressed by what he saw and heard—and by the sunshine that greeted him, compared to cloudy winters in Vancouver, where he had spent 18 years as music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra—Tovey was ready to accept when executive director Joe McKenna and the music director search committee offered him the position here.
Tovey, who also serves as artistic adviser to the Rhode Island Philharmonic and as principal conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra, began his five-year commitment to the Sarasota Orchestra officially on Sept. 1. And in October, he led a concert at the Sarasota Opera House that presented him to the community in his new role.
“I feel confident I’ve made the right decision,” Tovey told us of accepting the appointment. “I only know three or four of the musicians here well, but I will get to know the rest, and I will be auditioning to fill the vacancies that exist” Those vacancies are due both to the pandemic and to not having a music director in place since the departure of Anu Tali in 2019.
He looks forward to leading audiences as well as musicians here. “When you’re the music director, you’re both the conductor and the curator of the season,” he says. “As far as programming, I don’t want to come in and scare audiences with a new repertoire they don’t feel prepared for. I think of myself as modern—I have young daughters and a son who keep me on my toes—but I want to say to audiences, ‘This is me, and there’s nothing to be scared of. We will travel forth together.’ If we present new work, I’ll do it myself, not hire guest conductors to do it.”
In the meantime, Tovey, who’s also a composer and pianist, plans to concentrate on the cornerstone composers of the classical music canon—Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms and others—while also rediscovering the works of women composers such as Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn who may not have received their due in the past.
And, of course, he will also be front and center when it comes to finding the right spot for the orchestra’s long-planned hall of its own. While saying that the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, where the orchestra often performs, “is the most gorgeous site in America for a concert hall,” he also says it’s not the best acoustically for an orchestra. Helping to move the hall process along is high priority. Farther down the road, he says, he’d like to take the orchestra on tour, as The Sarasota Ballet company has done, with performances in New York City and elsewhere.
For himself personally, Tovey claims he is not ambitious. His chief goals, he says, are to be an “authentic, serious musician,” to “create a safe space for the musicians to try anything,” and to make audiences “from any walk of life feel welcome” to orchestra performances. “I have no other agenda than to play the music.”