A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


Maestro Bramwell Tovey On Jazz, Elgar & Café Fiorello
Sunday, September 28, 2008

Last night Rosemary, Abraham and I went to the opening season concert of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. On the program was:

1. A rousing version (the best I have ever heard) of O Canada.

2. Robert Schumann Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 129 with soloist Lynn Harrell. Harrell performed an encore of the Sarabande from J.S. Bach's Suite No 5 in A minor for solo cello. Harrell's performance was much mellower and less dramatic than the Pablo Casals version I am accustumed to. But it was sweet, nonetheless and most appropriate after the quiet and also mellow Schumann concerto. Wearing what looked like a black Nehru jacket, I thought that at any moment Harrell was going to levitate and float above the floor in ecstasy.

3. Bramwell Tovey's Urban Runway (commissioned by the NY Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the 2008 summer season).

4. Sergey Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet: Suite.

There was an encore of Edward Elgar's Variations on an Original Theme for orchestra, Op. 36 ("Enigma"), with Variation 9 (Adagio) "Nimrod"

My main interest that evening was the Prokofiev as I have seen the Romeo and Juliet ballet performed twice by Evelyn Hart. As I listened to the music I could imagine her dancing in my imagination. It was beautifully played and I especially liked the sound of the cornet that represented Juliet.

But the evening was special for two other reasons. Tovey's Urban Runway to my untrained ears with its jazz sounds (played by what seemed to be a reinforced orchestra) sounded like Gershwin on speed! It was lively, exciting and wonderfully loud at times. No matter how often I listen to Elgar's Nimrod I will never tire of it. It may just be that some years ago as I traveled in a fast train between Crewe and Euston Station in London I saw the miniature landscapes (with miniature clouds hovering over the miniature hills) of the English countryside and I could imagine Elgar's music. The landscape was Elgar. Bramwell Tovey brings with his interest in jazz and love for Elgar a warm sociability to his role as Maestro of our city symphony orchestra. A couple of months ago I had a chance to take his photograph in my studio and we chatted.

I asked him how he came to learn to play the jazz piano. He told me:

I learned to play the jazz piano by ear in church when I was a boy in Ilford near London. I learned the classical piano as well. When I came to North America I tried to jam with jazz musicians. I got into it and I listened to a lot of jazz. I like the act of improvisation because I spend nearly all day, every day with my head in a score. When I play jazz I have the score in my head so it is like a reversal of roles. I am not conducting the music that is all written down. I become the individual who is performing and I can create in my heart at the same time. I find improvisation liberating and I am glad I can do both. (jazz piano and classical piano)

I asked Tovey who his favourite English composer was.

It is Edward Elgar and not because of the pomp and circumstance side of his music which is entertaining these days with the world of imperialism that has fallen away but simply because of the introspection of some of his music. His Engigma Variations and his First Symphony are about an intense personal journey that he underwent from being the son of a piano tuner to being a friend of Kind Edward VII. When he underwent that journey, England was a class driven society, it still is, and he drove through all those barriers with his extraordinary personal talent. He is the most gifted instrumental composer that England has produced.

For anybody who reads the NY Times regularly (me!) it would be quickly known that Tovey is beloved by the audience when he directs the NY Philharmonic in the summer festivals there. He is not only valued for his conducting but for his intimate chatter on all things musical (or not). So I asked Tovey if he was an adopted son of New York.

I may be an adopted son of New York but I am Canadian now. I am married to a Canadian. I have Canadian children. I regard myself as an adopted Canadian. But in New York, I love the city! I have been going regularly since 2000. I do this summer festival. Opposite Lincoln Center there is this Italian restaurant called Café Fiorello. It has the greatest antipasto bar of any Italian restaurant that I have ever been in. I live in that restaurant. I meet people there for casual coffee, for breakfast for dessert. I find that the whole of New York seems to come through that restaurant. When I arrive at Fiorello's and I have had profiteroles then I feel like a real New Yorker.

Saturday night's concert will be repeated tomorrow, Monday September 29


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