In 1986, British conductor Bramwell Tovey stepped in at the last minute for an indisposed Lukas Foss on the opening night of the London Symphony’s Leonard Bernstein Festival. It turned out be a big day for him on many fronts. Not only did his successful appearance launch his international career, but he also was invited to master classes at the Tanglewood Music Festival with Bernstein, who had been in the audience for the LSO concert.

But there was another outcome as well for the conductor, who is also a top-flight pianist. After seeing Tovey conduct George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue on that program with a guest soloist, Bernstein told him he should play the solo part and conduct from the keyboard. Tovey liked the idea, and he has been doing it that way ever since.

QUICK TAKES: Bramwell Tovey

Occupation: Composer, pianist and conductor.

Posts: Music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra since 2000 and principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl.

Chicago connection: Piano soloist and guest conductor March 24-25 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for an all-Gershwin program including Rhapsody in Blue.

Notable works: His most performed work is Requiem for a Charred Skull, which won the 2003 Juno (Canada’s equivalent to the Grammy) for best classical composition. But perhaps best known internationally is Urban Runway (2008), a co-commission of the New York Philharmonic and Los Angeles Philharmonic.

In his words: Speaking from the podium is a little like hosting friends for dinner.
“If you’re boring, you’ll turn them off,” he said. “If you’re welcoming and tell them things that can enhance the experience while being a human being about it—it’s important not to be as dry as dust—then you can help people listen.”

Indeed, the music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra has become a regular performer of most of the American composer’s popular works. So when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra asked him if he would like to lead an all-Gershwin program on March 24-25, Tovey didn’t need much convincing. “Who wouldn’t with the Chicago Symphony?” he said.

The centerpiece of the program, titled “Gershwin Spectacular,” will be Rhapsody in Blue, with, yes, Tovey serving as both piano soloist and conductor. “What it brings is a little more of the jazz-band feeling to the piece, because everyone is having to listen very carefully,” he said.

He makes a point each year of doing several programs a year where he takes on the duo roles. “I always feel as the conductor that you’re like a First World War general back in some glorious chateau while the troops are slogging away in the trenches,” said Tovey, who made his CSO subscription debut in February, after previously leading the orchestra at the Ravinia Festival. “I think it’s good for orchestra players to see the conductor in the trenches at times, and it’s a chance to make music on a different scale with musicians you are getting to know. I think it brings a certain intimacy to the proceedings, and for the audience, it’s always interesting to see the conductor sweat a bit.”

Bramwell Tovey greets Leonard Bernstein after the dress rehearsal of his Bernstein Festival concert in 1986. | Photo: Suzie Maeder

Bramwell Tovey greets Leonard Bernstein after the dress rehearsal of his Bernstein Festival concert in 1986. | Photo: Suzie Maeder

Last summer at Ravinia, the CSO performed Rhapsody in Blue with Jeffrey Kahane as soloist and conductor. Kahane chose the first version of the work that bandleader Paul Whiteman and the Palais Royal Orchestra premiered during a 1924 concert in New York City. That orchestration by Ferde Grofé consists essentially of a big band plus a percussion section — drum set, timpani and glockenspiel — and banjo and violins.

But for his March concerts, Tovey has opted for the 1942 Grofé arrangement for full symphony orchestra. This subsequent version still remains the most common way Rhapsody is heard, despite some conductors in recent decades like Kahane opting for the earlier take. But Tovey is reducing the number of strings, so that it will have what he called a more balanced sound and a “tighter, more of a jazz-band feel.”

In addition to An American in Paris, Gershwin’s idiomatic ode to the City of Light, the CSO program will include a less familiar offering, Catfish Row, a concert suite that Gershwin assembled from his opera “Porgy and Bess,” with the vocal parts worked into the orchestral fabric of the piece. “It’s all authentic Gershwin orchestration, not as thick and luxurious at times as some of the Hollywoodizations that came later,” Tovey said. “But what’s interesting about it is that it is much earthier and more visceral.”

Familiar songs like “Summertime” are combined with less frequently heard parts of the opera such as the storm music. “So it’s Gershwin’s own personal list of favorite hits from Porgy and Bess,” he said.

Rounding out the program is Tovey’s instrumental arrangement of the standard “A Foggy Day” and Don Rose’s arrangement of the overture to the musical Strike Up the Band, which the conductor regards as a “mini-masterpiece.” “It’s a compilation of hits from the show, but it’s so well orchestrated and just ushers in that Gershwin sound world,” he said. “I just love that overture and that particular arrangement.”

Note: Paired with the March 24 concert is “A Toast to Gershwin,” a fund-raising event presented by the League of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, with pre-concert cocktails and post-concert entertainment. For more details, click here.