At Home with Maestro Bramwell Tovey

The Vancouver Symphony’s Maestro Bramwell Tovey offers a glimpse into his West Side home in Vancouver

Maestro Bramwell Tovey plays his seven-foot Steinway piano for 2-3 hours every day

The Vancouver Symphony’s Maestro Bramwell Tovey offers a glimpse into his West Side home in Vancouver

The Vancouver Symphony’s charismatic, Grammy Award-winning conductor Bramwell Tovey has toured the world as director or guest conductor with orchestras from Los Angeles to Luxembourg. He is also a composer.

His first opera, The Inventor, premiered in 2011. He has also received a Juno Award for Requiem for a Charred Skull. Tovey has been featured on numerous radio and television broadcasts, and awarded several honorary degrees. Here, Tovey talks about the place nearest to his heart.

At Home with Maestro Bramwell Tovey

Where do you live?
Tovey: We bought our house on Vancouver’s West Side because it’s in a very traditional English style. It is newly restored (by architect James Kang), but still has formal living and dining rooms, and the original wood-burning stone fireplace.

(Image: Vancouver 125)

Where do you create your music?
Tovey: My studio is in the basement, a very quiet workspace that allows me to focus and be creative. When I compose, I write it out longhand, which I’ve learned to do very quickly over the past 30 years. I was up until 1 a.m. this morning finishing orchestrating a choral piece for the Tapestry International Festival of Women’s Choirs. We’re rehearsing it today. I orchestrated it for brass quintet and organ. Composing can be a navel-gazing exercise, a painstaking process that I imagine gardeners feel trying to watch plants grow.

What instruments do you own?
Tovey: We have a seven-foot Steinway piano in the music room, which I play for two to three hours per day. My kids share two pianos with me, and also play the violin and cello. I have a bass trumpet, and a euphonium that belonged to my father, purchased by my grandfather in 1926. I have my great-great-grandfather’s cornet that he played in The Salvation Army band.

Your history is with The Salvation Army?
Tovey: My relatives heard Salvation Army (SA) founder William Booth preaching in the 1870s and became SA officers. They must have been drunks because they listened to him outside the Blind Beggar Pub in the rough East End of London. My father was a SA pianist and euphonium player and my mother sang. I grew up listening to the preacher launch into hymns in any key, and the pianist kept up, playing by ear. At age 10, I thought, “I can do that,” and taught myself. I realized that same improvisational skill is used to play a Bach continuum or jazz solo, and used it while also learning classical music skills.

You have a large library.
Tovey: About 3,000 of my books on literature, poetry and politics are in the library; I have about 5,000, several being quite old and a few being first editions. I feel I must read them if I buy them, so have read all of them. In New York and Paris, I have spent much free time browsing bookstores. I prefer reading within a community of minds going back three to four hundred years – which have formed some of the greatest ideas there have ever been – than watching television.

Have you collected mementos while touring?
Tovey: The most personally precious piece I bought was when I was conducting for the Royal Ballet in Bombay (Mumbai) in 1986. It was the first time that a Western classical ballet company had performed in India. Half of the orchestra was from Bombay and half was from the Royal Opera House in London. Working closely to combine them became a very special experience. At a market that had artifacts of extraordinary quality, I bought an enormous, fragile silk panel depicting a Buddha scene for the equivalent of one pound. Many years later, my wife found it in a cupboard and had it framed.

What is your favourite room?
Tovey: I love the living room. The North American style of having everyone swarm around one gargantuan open space is not for me. I like being able to shut the door for privacy to have a quiet moment chatting or reading. It features antiques that belonged to my English parents and grandparents . . . and a handful of books.

What do you like best about coming home after a concert?
Tovey: I enjoy having people to our home afterward. We open a bottle of wine in front of the log fire and visit.

You give an energetic performance.
Tovey: Staying active is important. I work out, and play cricket in an over-40s league in Stanley Park. Conducting is not a sedentary profession. You can’t look soporific on stage or you’ll put everyone to sleep.

3 Things Bramwell Tovey Can’t Live Without at Home

  1. BBC’s Downton Abbey. “I am counting down to the next season.”
  2. A copy of Punch Magazine from the 1940s. “I bought this magazine during my travels to Barcelona.”
  3. A large pine kitchen table. “This is where I have my morning coffee.”

Originally published in BC Home & Garden magazine. For regular updates, subscribe to our free Home and Garden e-newsletters, or purchase a subscription to the magazine.