American conductors, as expected, tend to be the most ardent champions of American music. Think Leonard Bernstein in past decades or Marin Alsop, Leonard Slatkin and Michael Tilson Thomas today. So it’s a little surprising to discover that Bramwell Tovey, a Brit through and through, has earned a place on that list as well.
“It’s something that I’ve developed a real passion for,” he said from the City of Brotherly Love, where he was guest conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. “When I was a student, we were so besotted with what was going on in Darmstadt [a German center of new music in the 1960s and ’70s], the whole Boulez-Stockhausen-Berio triangle. We didn’t really appreciate that there was this fresh, vibrant and really legitimate encounter with tonality going on in America.”
The veteran conductor, who returns Jan. 10-12 to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, came by much of his affection for American music during his stints as music director of two of Canada’s most important orchestras: the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra (1989-2001) and Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (2000-2018). Given Canada’s proximity to the United States and the two country’s shared history, Tovey made a point of including a great deal of American music on the two ensembles’ programs. He hosted composers such as Aaron Jay Kernis and Joan Tower at a new-music festival he helped establish in Winnipeg and led the Canadian premieres of major contemporary works such as John Adams’ Harmonielehre, a 1985 orchestral work, and John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1, which the CSO premiered in 1990.
Tovey gained an appreciation for earlier American composers Aaron Copland, William Schuman and David Diamond through his association with Bernstein as a conducting novice. “I met Bernstein back in ’86 and spent some time with him in London and also in Tanglewood that year,” Tovey said. “So knowing him, as it were, first-hand, and having spent time with him one on one, working pretty intensely, I was terribly interested in the composers who he had a kinship with.”
American music will be front and center when Tovey leads one of the CSO’s most adventuresome programs of its 2018-19 season. “I think it has a very interesting trajectory,” he said. “It’s very thought-provoking.” Some of the works raise issues of racial and class discrimination that the conductor believes are as relevant as ever today, and many of them tie into the CSO’s seasonlong commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.
A key component of the program is a group of American art songs performed by famed baritone Thomas Hampson, who will be making his first appearance in Orchestra Hall since 2006. Included will be selections from Copland’s Old American Songs as well as the orchestra’s first performances of Michael Daugherty’s “Letter to Mrs. Bixby” from Letters from Lincoln and Corigliano’s “One Sweet Morning.”
The program will open with Schuman’s arrangement of Charles Ives’ Variations on America, originally a work for organ that the celebrated composer wrote in 1891 when he was 17. Also included will be the CSO’s first performances of William Grant Still’s In Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died for the Democracy (1943). Tovey has done on research on Still, the dean of African American music, and Florence Price, another prominent African-American composer, as part of his soon-to-conclude stint as associate professor of music and director of orchestral activities at Boston University.
Also running through this program is a strong British musical thread. The program will culminate with Edward Elgar’s popular Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36 (Enigma). “It’s a piece that I’ve done a lot, and it’s a piece that I’ve toured with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra,” he said. Jeff Alexander, who took over as the CSO’s president after holding the equivalent post with the Vancouver Symphony for 14 years, was eager for Tovey to perform the piece in Chicago, because he admired the conductor’s take on it.
Other English connections include Ives’ Variations on America, which incorporates a tune that also is heard in God Save the Queen, the national anthem of the United Kingdom. In addition, another of the American songs that Hampson will perform, Walter Damrosch’s Danny Deever, is a setting of a poem by famed British author Rudyard Kipling. The song, written in 1897, is said to have been a favorite of Theodore Roosevelt. According to Tovey, the song’s orchestral arrangement could not be found, despite the existence of a recording, so the conductor created a new orchestration, hewing closely Damrosch’s piano version.
Tovey is excited about his upcoming reunion with the Chicago Symphony. “The orchestra is so incredible, and I have absolutely loved working with them on the four occasions I’ve been with them previously,” he said. “There is such a sense of excellence and such a pursuit of some kind aesthetic core, and for a conductor, it’s an almost transcendental thing. I think with this program, we will all be on a journey.”
Note: Thomas Hampson will sign CDs in Grainger Ballroom after the concert on Jan. 11.