Bramwell Tovey: “Four years at Julliard for that!”
On Saturday, March 7, it was English Night at Symphony Hall, and I like that sort of thing. I like it even better when it’s played as nearly to perfection as I can tell, particularly by a certain section whom I have been rather down on lately. It’s the brass section.
Saturday night’s all English program at the San Diego Symphony was elegance on steroids. Bramwell Tovey conducted with a marvelous liquidity of gesture, alternately grand and pointedly particular, himself a seeming cross between Sir Adrian Boult and Alec Guinness. The players responded to it with all the energy we have heard mustered by Maestro Payare, and with a hearty, beef-eating, pint-downing enthusiasm that would have played well to a London audience.
Tovey’s informatively loquacious introduction to the Elgar “Enigma Variations” yielded a few “bon-mots” worthy of Sir Thomas Beecham himself. Refering to Elgar’s self-acquired familiarity with wind and brass instruments, Tovey said that Elgar (himself a highly proficient violinist) “also played the trombone! Well…no one’s perfect!”
Describing the famous “Nimrod” variation he said, “This is, of course, the piece that the British play at every state funeral and occasion of national mourning…some people even have it at their weddings.” He pointed out the technique, in the penultimate variation, of drumming two coins on the edge of the tympany’s drum-head, to evoke the quiet, steely, nervous-making mechanical reverberation inside a steamship on a long voyage; and after having the percussionist give a demonstration of the novel usage, said, “Four years at Julliard for that!”
Summing up his introduction of the subjects of these musical portraits, Tovey said: “All this is just stuff the British natter on about amongst ourselves, but it makes us feel better when we share!” All of which, and more, were ingratiating, first-hand observations, giving the concert the feel of an evening at the Pops, but with the full weight of the Masterworks Series.
Tovey revealed that he once saw William Walton from a distance in the Royal Albert Hall; watched Benjamin Britten walk by at close range (at the age of 14 he was scared of the great composer); and was once introduced to the 102-year-old niece of Sir Edward Elgar, of whom he inquired “What was he like?” She answered, “He was as warm, as loving, and as amusing as every note of the music he wrote.” And that is the way the San Diego Symphony played him under Bramwell Tovey.
As we rose to leave I said to the gentleman who sat beside me, mustering Tovey-esque dryness, “It was all right…if you like that sort of thing!” All of us left the hall smiling.