Conductor/composer Bramwell Tovey doesn't recoil with horror from just anything.
The Philadelphia Orchestra's urbane guest conductor for the next two weeks has seen much in life. He grew up in the Salvation Army in his native London, has regularly faced potentially distracted audiences at the Hollywood Bowl, braved the red carpet at the Grammy Awards, and guest-conducted all the Big Five orchestras in the span of one fabulous month last summer.
The British-born, Vancouver-based Tovey might be called America's unofficial principal guest conductor, happy to go where needed, whether leading Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 at the Mann Center last summer, making his subscription debut with the orchestra this week, or directing its "Glorious Sounds of Christmas" concerts Dec. 18-20 at the Kimmel Center.
But if you bring up ambition - that perhaps he some day might receive a knighthood (as did his old classmate Simon Rattle) - he looks at you as if you've sprouted devil horns: "Oh God, no! I think that would be too embarrassing for words!"
This may not be humility, false or otherwise, but a radical departure from his idea of the job description. At age 61, his life has mainly consisted of three orchestral relationships in Winnipeg, Luxembourg, and Vancouver, and even those were a bit much in light of the time he wanted to spend with his wife and three children.
He has watched the likes of Yannick Nézet-Séguin guest-conduct his Vancouver group and then go on to international stardom - while he maintains a longtime relationship with the less-than-glamorous National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain, an 80-member ensemble that converges twice a year.
"I don't want to get into an ivory tower where I won't conduct Mozart unless I have 15 rehearsals. That would be so boring!" he says. "Too many people in maestro positions don't get involved with what we might call the evangelical stuff. Yannick is a wonderful conductor, but he also 'mucks in.' He gets involved. And what a difference that makes."
As a part-time composer (best known for his full-length opera The Inventor), he also found himself writing what he calls his "Rittenhouse Carol" for the "Glorious Sounds of Christmas" concert. The idea came to him last year as he strolled around the square with its festive shops and restaurants. Though mostly mellifluous, its middle section is in the decidedly Philadelphian key of C-sharp minor.
You might almost think that Tovey is a pops conductor, considering how he launched his U.S. career by coming in through the side door of summer concerts (he's a New York Philharmonic fixture) with lighter music. In truth, however, his performances of the supposed "hard stuff" (Beethoven's 9th, etc.) are as fine as anybody's. To him, the lighter music is the harder stuff. For a week's subscription concerts, Gershwin's "Catfish Row Suite" from Porgy and Bess has great tunes attached to a problematic orchestration.
"It's murder for string players," he said.
His main complaint at Tuesday's rehearsal was that the upright piano he'll play onstage during Gershwin's so-called "Jasbo Brown" music was too polished, too nice, not honky-tonk enough. If any conductor knows about that sort of thing, Tovey does, with his "Dickensian" upbringing as the third generation of Salvation Army officers in hardscrabble East London. Tovey lived in uniform until age 19.
"I played by ear to accompany various preachers," he says. "You had to find their key and catch the song as best you could. And it turned out to be exactly the same skill as playing jazz."
The evangelistic sense of inclusivity followed him through the Royal Academy of Music, the University of London, and his early time at the Royal Opera and Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet, where he worked his way up from rehearsal pianist. Though he caught some breaks, such as a London Symphony Orchestra debut at age 30, it was a Canadian tour conducting for Sadler's Wells that ultimately got him to the Winnipeg Symphony, which he led from 1989 to 2001.
There, and with the Vancouver orchestra (which he took over in 2000 and with which he is now contracted through 2018), he developed a habit of talking to audiences in a Noel Coward-esque fashion - "like welcoming guests who have come to dinner" - and seems a bit frustrated that during his Boston Symphony Orchestra engagements, such things are simply not done.
His most prestigious appointment so far was as chief conductor of the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra, though he left after four years in 2006 because "my wife Lana was going crazy from my being away so much." Sticking with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, he won a Grammy in 2008 for a disc of large-orchestra concertos by Barber, Korngold, and Walton with violinist James Ehnes.
Yet underneath Tovey's welcoming exterior there is ferocity. He walked away from the 2010 Winter Olympics because the orchestra was asked to mime to prerecorded music. Few people have been so outspokenly critical of the Canadian Broadcasting Company, which Tovey believes has lost its curatorial focus. Regarding arts funding, he never talks of grants, but of "investments."
"We aren't underfunded," he said. "We're undercapitalized."
Somehow, a knighthood might take him too far out of the trenches, and too much into the realm of personal ambitions.
"Forty years ago, there were several things I wanted to do: Write an opera, conduct the London Symphony . . . I did all those things. I never thought in a thousand years that I would conduct 125 concerts with the New York Philharmonic.
"It's good to have ambitions, but it's also good to get on with your life and let everything take care of itself."