Bramwell Tovey, back where he belongs

The Philadelphia Orchestra presents its 2019 New Year’s Eve concert

2 minute read
Conductor Bramwell Tovey offered a hilarious take on Tchaikovsky. (Photo by David Cooper.)
Conductor Bramwell Tovey offered a hilarious take on Tchaikovsky. (Photo by David Cooper.)

Three years ago, I called Bramwell Tovey “the ideal choice to lead a New Year’s Eve concert” but remarked that his soloist that evening, soprano Tracy Dahl, was best reserved for less festive occasions. Someone at the Philadelphia Orchestra must have heard me, because Tovey returned Tuesday night in all his comic glory with no supporting soloist whatever.

From the opening two bars of a Gershwin arrangement—when Tovey wiped sweat off his brow, as if burdened by the prodigious effort—the audience at Verizon Hall knew this puckish Scottish conductor would deliver what they had come for: a feel-good evening spent communing with great musicians performing uplifting favorites by great composers.

In the course of two hours of rousing works by Gershwin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Leroy Anderson, Brahms, and of course Johann Strauss the younger, Tovey again demonstrated himself a capable conductor as well as a comedian adept at breaking down the barriers between performers and audience. Spotting a familiar face in the front row, he remarked, “You were here for the Christmas concert! Hope you went home in between.” Tovey’s hilarious summary of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake—“The prince says, 'Mother, I’ve met someone I want to marry. She’s a swan'”—was itself worth the admission price.

Only one Tovey quip fell flat with me: his passing reference to Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s short stature. This was a violation of Rottenberg’s fourth rule of humor: never make fun of things people can’t control—like their age, name, background, relatives, and of course physical characteristics.

Reason to hope in 2020

But that’s a minor quibble. Only once, by my reckoning, did Tovey repeat one of his gags from 2016: introducing Strauss’s Emperor Waltz, he exhorted the audience to “picture elegant ladies in long white gloves that cover all their tattoos.” Few in the audience minded, presumably because this was no traditional Philadelphia Orchestra audience: In the sold-out hall I recognized few Orchestra regulars. Nor, it seems, do most concertgoers dress up anymore for New Year’s Eve with the orchestra.

Which is all well and good. If the orchestra can usher in the new year by persuading novice concertgoers that (1) serious music can be fun and (2) Americans at their best can rise to extraordinary heights, might that not be reason to hope that we’re capable of vanquishing our political demons in 2020? Come to think of it, our narcissist-in-chief didn’t cross my mind once during the evening. For that escapist feat alone, Tovey deserves a medal of honor—from the House, if not the Senate.

What, When, Where

Philadelphia Orchestra New Year’s Eve concert. Works by Gershwin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Anderson, Brahms, and Johann Strauss Jr. Conducted by Bramwell Tovey. December 31, 2019, at Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, 300 S. Broad St., Philadelphia. (215) 893-19999 or

The Kimmel Center is an ADA-compliant venue. Patrons can purchase wheelchair seating or loose chairs online, by calling Patron Services at (215) 893-1999, or by emailing [email protected]. With advance notice, Patron Services can provide options for personal care attendants, American Sign Language, Braille tickets and programs, audio descriptions, and other services.

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