Bramwell Tovey, Principal Conductor and Artistic Director of the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra, died peacefully on July 12th at his home in Barrington, Rhode Island, one day after celebrating his 69th birthday, surrounded by loved ones. Bramwell was incredibly proud of and devoted to his family, and is survived by his children Ben, Jessica and Emmeline, his partner Verena De Neovel, his sisters, grandchildren, nieces and nephew.
Tovey certainly led an epic life. Born in East London, where his musical training began in Salvation Army bands, his talent took him from tuba, to piano, to conducting, and eventually attracted the attention of Leonard Bernstein, who described him as his “hero.” Tovey went on to transformative tenures as Music Director at Canada’s Winnipeg Symphony, where he founded a groundbreaking New Music Festival, and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, where he grew audiences, won a Grammy, led international tours, and helped found the VSO School of Music, whose building now bears his name. Along the way, he won a Juno award for his work as a composer and became the founding host and conductor of the New York Philharmonic’s Summertime Classics Festival as well as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Principal Guest Conductor at the Hollywood Bowl.
Tovey first conducted the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra in October of 2016. His chemistry with the orchestra, audience, organization and community was immediate. In 2018, he succeeded Larry Rachleff, who led the RI Philharmonic Orchestra for more than two decades. Upon accepting his new post, Tovey stated:
“Three things caught my attention in Rhode Island. First and foremost, the devotion and commitment of the musicians led by concertmaster Charles Dimmick. Secondly, the wonderful Rhode Island Philharmonic Music School with its dedicated teachers and inspirational dynamic and thirdly, the excellent Board under President Robert Naparstek and the administration under Executive Director David Beauchesne, one of the most creative orchestra managers in America. I’m looking forward to this new relationship in my career as I firmly believe, as does the Philharmonic, that we thrive only if we serve the communities in which we make music.”
Tovey quickly put his artistic stamp on the organization, resulting in RIPO debuts for artists like Olga Kern, Yefim Bronfman, James Ehnes, Pinchas Zukerman, Amanda Forsythe and Emanuel Ax. He also demonstrated a strong commitment to diversity and to living composers, programming premieres of works by Jessie Montgomery, Gabriela Lena Frank, Florence Price, Eric Nathan, Quinn Mason and Carlos Simon, among others. Committed to strengthening the collaboration between the Orchestra and School, he featured the RI Phil Youth Orchestra side by side with RIPO on a Saturday night TACO Classical concert for the first time and invited students from the Music School’s Victoria’s Dream Project to perform on this past year’s Gala.
Diagnosed with a rare form of sarcoma in May of 2019, Tovey underwent surgery at Dana Farber in Boston in June of 2021 that left him briefly cancer free. In January of this year, scans confirmed a re occurrence from which he was ultimately unable to recover.
“We are all heartbroken,” said David Beauchesne, Executive Director. “Bramwell Tovey was a dear friend and colleague, and a person of uncommon ability, warmth, humor, sincerity and kindness. The youngest student and most revered guest artist received the same level of his care and attention. His death is a profound loss to our organization and community, and to musicians and audiences around the globe. Bramwell was incredibly grateful to the conductors who stepped in on his behalf in Rhode Island and elsewhere, for the support he received from the RI Philharmonic community, and to all who sent him messages of encouragement. Together with his family and colleagues everywhere, we will support one another through this difficult time, and continue his legacy of artistry, education, inclusion and humanity.”
Prior to Tovey’s passing, and with his full support along with that of the organization’s board, management and orchestra committee, Tania Miller agreed to step in as Interim Principal Conductor of the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra. Miller will lead three concerts on the 2022/23 season and assume some off stage duties as well. Other concerts will be led by Kensho Watanabe and Sascha Goetzel. Leonard Slatkin will join the orchestra and Renee Fleming for the 2023 Annual Gala Concert on June 3, 2023.
The Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2022-23 season will be dedicated to the memory of Bramwell Tovey and will celebrate his joy of music and passion for music education. A memorial fund will be established in Bramwell Tovey’s name to support the Rhode Island Philharmonic Music School and its impact on future generations of young musicians in Bramwell’s adopted state. Details on the fund and how to express condolences will follow.
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