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Maestro, Music Please

Bramwell Tovey’s Salvation Army roots inform every flick of his baton as he conducts orchestras all over the world. 

March 16, 2012 by Jayne Thurber-Smith


“There’s a deep bond between spirituality and the world of classical music,” declares world-renowned conductor, composer and musician Bramwell Tovey. “The music is full of expressions of faith and Christian doctrine, which is frequent inspiration for whatever I do. For example, the song Lo He Comes With Clouds Descendin’ is so brilliant. It’s perfectly harmonized and gives you such a thrilling feeling. You can’t truly hear this music without a deep sense of faith, and faith plays a big part in my life.”

Music in the Family
So does The Salvation Army. Bramwell’s family have been active members of the church for five generations, and he himself was named after Bramwell Booth, the son of co-Founders William and Catherine Booth and the Army’s second international leader. Bramwell’s great-great-grandparents and his great-grandparents actually heard William Booth preach back in the 19th century, and his grandparents were pastors.

“I started listening to music at a very early age,” says Bramwell. “Everybody at home played an instrument or sang in a choir.” And his maternal grandfather and father were in The Salvation Army’s International Staff Band (ISB), he adds. “I started as a second baritone player for The Salvation Army as a teenager and graduated to the tuba. Since then, I’ve conducted and played with the ISB several times. I learned a lot of my musical standards from The Salvation Army. They have phenomenal musicians and many are still good friends of mine.”

Bramwell also served on the Salvation Army Advisory Board in Manitoba for 10 years when he was the music director for the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra in the ’90s.

“There’s a lot of very high-quality music-making in The Salvation Army,” he says.

Breaking Down Barriers
Although Bramwell played a variety of instruments while growing up, his fascination wasn’t with the musicians but with the conductor.

“I found the concept of musical leadership very interesting,” he remembers, “a single baton leading and directing the entire band. From a very young age, I thought, How is it possible that one person can lead a group like that? I saw that you lead by example and by empowering the people beneath you. It’s a huge responsibility to know you’re conducting this group and that you’re responsible for both their well-being and for the success of the concert.”

From The Salvation Army, he not only learned how to lead music but also how to work the stage.

“When I was growing up in London, England, we had a wonderful pastor, Marcus Brown,” Bramwell remembers. “He was a fantastic speaker and had a habit of lacing his sermons with side-splitting jokes. I’d listen to his sermon and he’d throw in a joke to make me want to listen even more carefully.”

And so Bramwell discovered the key to keeping people’s attention. After performing at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester in 2007, he served as principal guest conductor to the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Hollywood Bowl summer concerts from 2008 to 2010. When a rare rain began to sprinkle his audience, he quipped, “I could have stayed in Manchester for this!”

“I find humour breaks down barriers,” he says. “Bringing a smile into a conversation raises the tone of communication and the level of trust. In introducing concerts, conductors tend to get a little stuffy. Granted, there is a level of virtuosity to classical music but even so, the people in the orchestra are human beings operating at intense levels. Humour helps them relax and lose their tension and stress. That’s part of my job as a conductor, along with welcoming the audience.”

“One Person on the Podium”
Bramwell has conducted concerts all over the world. He is the artistic director of the National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain, music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and conductor for the Summertime Classics series of concerts with the New York Philharmonic. He seamlessly goes from leading one orchestra to the next.

“When I was younger, I didn’t know the orchestras like I know them now,” he says. “I remember how terrified I was
of my first concert in New York City. Conducting orchestras I don’t go to very often can be stressful, like when I go to Australia. It’ll be just me, one person on the podium, looking at all these talented musicians with different degrees, diplomas, doctorates and reputations. You just have to rely solely on your integrity, talent and hard work.”

Deep Bond
Bramwell comes by those traits honestly, as his father played in a Salvation Army band right up to the last weekend of his life.

“My father passed away when I was 15,” he says. “The band was so important to him. The worship and the way the music was presented as part of the church service was a crucial part of what he was as a person. And what he thought of all that rubbed off on me. Recently, I played at a Vancouver church as a guest. Just as my dad taught me, I played the hymn with the hymnal open in front of me so I could follow the words and reflect them in the song. Great hymns such as Come Thou, Long-Expected Jesus are played differently when the words phrase the music.”

He fondly recalls playing the piano at the end of his 91-year-old mother’s funeral last June. She’d insisted ahead of time on a Salvation Army funeral and on being buried in her Army uniform, complete with the traditional bonnet.

“A friend of mine played the piano for the service,” he recalls. “Then my sister said to me, ‘Why don’t you play when Mum is taken out?’ So the cornet player and I played my mother out of the hall to Blessed Assurance. I had never played the song before, but I read the words as I played and they were so beautiful: ‘This is my story, this is my song, praising my Saviour.’ That was her story. It is now one of my favourite hymns.”

Bramwell is forever grateful to God for all the elements in his life that led him from an ordinary family in the East End of London to enjoying a successful career spanning more than 30 years, with no end in sight. But he will always credit The Salvation Army for allowing him to fully explore his talents at, first, playing a variety of instruments, then composing, then conducting.

“The Salvation Army is my religion,” he states proudly.

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