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Bramwell Tovey on conducting: 'It's a bit of an alchemy'

Bramwell Tovey on conducting: 'It's a bit of an alchemy'

Concertmaster Kim interprets movements
Bramwell Tovey on conducting: 'It's a bit of an alchemy'
Bramwell Tovey.
Photographer: Provided

To classical musicians and dedicated classical music listeners, the conductor’s role seems obvious. The baton-wielding figures guide the sea of musicians before them to shape melodious allegros and somber adagios. 

But in between the baton motions keeping the tempo and the seemingly exaggerated arm movements, there’s something else that the audience is not privy to. It’s a secret language of sorts that no high-tech app could decode (not even the most updated version of Google Translate). 

“It’s a pretty mysterious business,” said David Kim, the concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra. “Two conductors can conduct back to back using the same music and the sound will come out completely different.”

During the 1600s and 1700s, the concertmaster or another musician would lead the orchestra. It’s only been in the last 200 hundred years or so that the modern role of the conductor began to take shape. 

As the first chair violinist, Kim has translated countless left-handed movements and flickers of expression from hundreds of conductors. The right hand usually holds the baton to give and keep the tempo, while the left hand infuses emotion and color into the piece. On top of that, conductors often use facial expressions and nods to shape the sound. 

And Kim is the first person that needs to interpret all those movements for the first violin section. 

Because the violins carry the melody in many pieces, it’s often the first thing the audience picks up on in a piece. It’s up to the concert master to establish bowing patterns, tone color and force of the interpretation to make that melody sing out in the way that the conductor wants it to sound, according to Kim. 

“It’s really important that the concertmaster can somehow read the mind of the conductor,” Kim said. “All those non-verbal communications can be important to a successful performance.”  

Most professional classical musicians have played all of Beethoven’s, Brahms’, Tchaikovsky’s and Haydn’s compositions many times over. But the beauty of classical music is in the interpretation and the spontaneity of the performance. 

“Even if it’s a piece we’ve played a million times ... we’re expecting something different,” Kim said. 

A local favorite

Something different is exactly what Bramwell Tovey creates year after year in his work with the Philadelphia Orchestra. 

“There’s something about steering the music, controlling the music and delivering the music to the listener that always appealed to me,” Tovey said. 

On top of guest conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, Tovey is the Grammy and Juno award-winning music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and guest conducts with the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Cleveland, Boston, Montreal, Melbourne and Sydney symphonies. 

For the past few years, Tovey has been coming back to Saratoga every year to lead the orchestra and has become a local favorite, according to SPAC. 

“I love coming up to Saratoga because, well, it’s just one of the great places. It’s just fabulous to be there, it’s the musical highlight of the summer,” Tovey said. 

On Friday night, he is slated to lead the orchestra in Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, a piece that they’d all played together many times over. 

But each time, Tovey challenges the orchestra’s virtuosity, its emotionality or even its technical capabilities to draw out a new sound from a piece that’s well over 100 years old. 

“The Philadelphians really respond to being pushed and challenged. The string players have that great Philadelphia sound, which is something that no other orchestra can really replicate,” Tovey said. 

When asked how he’s able to push the orchestra, Tovey admits his profession is difficult to explain. 

“A lot of work the conductor does is subliminal,” Tovey said. 

It’s a flick of the wrist, a slight lean forward or an inside joke remembered from rehearsal. After all, in rehearsal, the conductor drives the orchestra forward the same way a football coach drives practice forward or a tennis instructor, according to Tovey. 

“I’ve noticed that whoever is on the podium of an organization does make a difference in terms of how the orchestra leans into a note, how it leans into a phrase and that every conductor has their own level of emphasis and their own style. That’s part of the thrill of it because with the orchestra like the Philadelphia Orchestra when a conductor is in control of that you can take it a step further. You can change the quality of the orchestra, the balance of it by a gesture or by implication and inference. It’s a bit of an alchemy,” Tovey said. 

Some conductors spend hours poring over the pieces they are to lead with each orchestra, trying to pinpoint what they’d like to draw out from each piece. But Tovey is not one to do that, at least not with the Philadelphia Orchestra. 

“I think the more you know an orchestra when you’re a conductor, the more you understand a group of musicians, the more you can channel their virtuosities. So for example, I know they’ve [the Philadelphia Orchestra] got a superb trumpet section, a wonderful cello section and sometimes there are moments with other orchestras where you don’t necessarily push those departments because you’re not sure what’s going to happen if you do,” Tovey said. 

Tovey will be delivering a pre-performance talk at SPAC at 7 p.m. on Friday, before the American Classic Day 3 program, which begins at 8 p.m.

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