"Most musicians have a real sense of humor‹it's a big part of orchestral life at rehearsals and backstage, as a relief from the pressure," says conductor Bramwell Tovey, whose conducting and ad-libbing scored a hit at last year's Summertime Classics. Mr. Tovey returns this month to lead the series' second season, and promises more high jinks and great music. "The funniest spur-of-the-moment witticisms I've ever heard," he adds, "were from musicians, not professional comedians. This side of music," he believes, "should be utilized more to bring people into classical music. They should no more be intimidated than they would be walking into the cinema."
Since Mr. Tovey's Philharmonic debut in 2000, regulars are becoming used to his habit of speaking from the stage, often with humor. In a March 2002 appearance, he prefaced a reading of Anton Webern's Symphony,op. 21, with comments to the audience. That summer he led five New York Philharmonic Time Warner Concerts in the Parks and recalls that after he spoke from the stage, "The listening was very intense. We all remarked on how attentive the audiences were.
"The goal," says the British-born conductor, who is music director of the Vancouver Symphony and the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra, "is to remove all walls between the listener and the composer." To that end, he keeps his remarks casual and off the cuff. "I don't write anything down." His secret is to be alert for some point of connection with the audience. It could be "the lady in the large Easter bonnet in the middle of the hall, a cell phone ringing, a player dropping a bow. I look for opportunities to make everyone more relaxed, try to relate to what I see in the papers or on TV. People are hungry for information as well as wanting to have a good time."
Jeannie Williams writes about opera for various publications, and is the author of the biography Jon Vickers: A Hero's Life (1999, Northeastern University Press).