Remember the Mayor of Hamelin?


The following remarks were submitted to VSB in full. Due to time constraints, the text in [brackets] below was omitted from the spoken presentation at the public hearing on April 12th 2016 at Vancouver Technical College.


[Thank you for the opportunity to speak to the VSB budget proposal. ]


[May I take a moment to thank the VSB trustees for their dedication to education in our community. Your stance on LGBT students in Vancouver schools set an example worldwide and is now the norm in right minded communities. Your support of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in the schools through our VSO Connects program was pioneering and has enabled the VSO to place musicians in selected schools to support and enhance the music programs.]


[One module of VSO Connects is called “Meet the Maestro”. I’ve made literally hundreds of school visits in the 16 years I’ve lived in Vancouver. This is a free concert for the entire school community where I talk about composition, conducting and the language of music, performing works by Beethoven and Schumann alongside pop and jazz classics and compose a work on the spot with the students’ help which I then perform for them at the piano. I’ve made up raps, ragas and rags to entertain students to bring home the point that in our pluralistic society music is the only language understood by everybody.]


[Additionally, the VSO performs for 50,000 school students every year in the Orpheum Theatre and since 2011 we have run our own community music school with classes from new borns to adult learners – noughties to nineties as we like to say. ]


I am here as Music Director of the Vancouver Symphony Society. As a not-for-profit organization we are unable to get involved with the political concerns that you’ve expressed. That’s not our field of expertise. We are all about the music and the students.

This is the third time in 6 years the VSO has made a presentation to the VSB on the value of music in young people’s lives. I was amazed to hear that it’s the fifth time in 7 years the topic has been raised.

I’ve never met a politician or school trustee who does not profess wholehearted support for music in the school system. Given the weight of academic evidence in favor of the role of music in education, they’d be foolish to do otherwise. It’s evident from the attendance at tonight’s meeting that concerns and emotions run high. After all, music is the language of our emotions.

I find it unlikely that any of the elected trustee would want to be permanently associated with pulling the plug on band and string programs in the Vancouver school district. Remember, the stock of the Mayor of Hamelin sank to an all time low after he refused to pay the Pied Piper.

I also believe none of you would want to seize musical instruments from the hands of students saying “It’s a cost cutting measure that just can’t be helped.”

You’ve told us where VSB believes the blame should lie. No doubt the situation is more subtle and certainly more nuanced, but tweets and headlines are only a few words long.

We believe we need a new way of tackling this issue. Traipsing back to these hearings on average every three years does nothing for the reputation of school trustees or MLAs. It’s distressing for the children who love their band and string programs, and it’s just plain demoralizing for the professional music teachers whose skills and inspirational guidance are so valued by us all.

We’re talking about $400,000, or just over 1% of the entire VSB budget. The sum has already decreased by over $150,000 since the 2014 cuts.

We believe music is a birthright of each child and should be ring-fenced. We strongly urge politicians of all persuasions to establish non-confrontational methods of dealing with this issue so that every child in our city can enjoy the benefits and life-enhancing activities of music without this constant reassessment.

The idea that our city can be an international cultural destination, with visitors from all over the world, a world class symphony, ballet and opera and yet our kids won’t get to hear a note of music in the school system, is just ridiculous.

We need to find a better way forward.

[Thank you for listening and please do the right thing.]

Bramwell Tovey O.C.
Music Director, Vancouver Symphony

Music – the one language we all understand…

The following article was published in the comment pages of the Vancouver Sun in 2010. I made these remarks at a public meeting of the Vancouver School Board (VSB) in April 2010, shortly after the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games. In a cost-cutting measure, VSB had proposed eliminating band and orchestra programs in schools under their control. Sensibly, in 2010 VSB decided not to go ahead with the proposed cuts.

Yesterday (Tuesday 8th April 2014) I heard that there was another proposal by VSB to cut the same programs. Since the arguments are exactly the same as last time I thought it apposite to reprint the original 2010 article. 

There is one major difference between 2010 and 2014. Now, the VSO has its own school, with over 1000 pupils, and our VSO Connects program running in every major school district in the Lower Mainland, touching the lives of thousands of students. Our involvement in music education has exponentially increased since 2010 and we are very concerned indeed about VSB’s latest proposal, which we consider potentially calamitous. We are coordinating our public strategy with several other organizations, but meantime, here’s why we encouraged VSB to withdraw the proposal in 2010.

Speech presented by Bramwell Tovey to Vancouver School Board (VSB) Trustees at a public meeting at Mount Pleasant Elementary, Vancouver  April 20th 2010.

(There was a 5 minute limit on all presentations.)

Good Evening.  My name is Bramwell Tovey. I am the Music Director and artistic head of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. I am also a parent of two students in a VSB French immersion program, aged 9 and 11. My wife, Lana is a music educator with several years experience of inner-city school teaching in Winnipeg.  For four years she volunteered as teacher of music and choir for Queen Elizabeth Annex Elementary School where she taught every class as this VSB school had no provision for music.

The VSO performs to 50,000 children every year in our educational and other concerts for children with the support of TELUS, our Premier Education Partner.

The VSO Connects educational program works in partnership with school boards across the Lower Mainland.  This program provides a link between the VSO and  selected schools on a year to year basis and brings the orchestra into direct contact with thousands of students throughout the Lower Mainland. We have worked in harmonious partnership with the VSB and sincerely thank you for your tremendous support of this important program which also brings students to rehearsals at the Orpheum in downtown Vancouver .

One of the modules we present is a “Meet the Maestro” program. I have visited dozens of schools in this program as a guest speaker and performer, speaking to the whole school community, students, parents who wish to attend, and of course, the teachers whose dedication and skill is so inspiring. I talk about music, the VSO, the language of music, the elements of composition and of course, I play the piano- the highlight is usually a short movement by Beethoven whose music  always connects with young listeners.

I make the point that Beethoven had a seemingly insurmountable handicap for a musician – he was deaf. He lived in a world of silence yet understood the language of music better than any of his contemporaries. He created some of the most extraordinary music to have captivated hearts and minds during the last two hundred years.

At the VSO we believe an education without a significant musical component is no education at all.

Music is a form of language which reaches every human being. It needs little or no translation.  In a school district like Vancouver, where dozens of languages are spoken by our widely diverse community, music is the only language common to everyone.

The proposal to cease investing in the Band and Strings Program is one that the VSO strongly urges the VSB to withdraw.  In many Vancouver schools we have witnessed first hand the benefits of the VSB supported band and strings program.  The option of a user-pay or school funded program does not embrace the inner city child whose only connection with live music may be the saxophone or drum set that has been offered to them. The saving of half a million dollars is paltry when considering the life enhancing benefits of this contact with the world of music.  In fact, I doubt this amount would even buy a family home within 10 blocks of the illustrious VSB building on West Broadway. When I heard the actual figure I found it hard to believe so much had been achieved with so little.

I do not bring these remarks to you from a lofty aesthetic perch. I grew up in England in the East End of London – my father died when I was a boy. Without the band and orchestra experience that I benefitted from in the state school education that I received, I would never have been able to compete and succeed in the music profession.  As a single parent my mother could not have afforded the cost of these activities.  I have a personal motive for standing here tonight – I don’t want a kid like me to fall through the cracks because of this proposal.

The Vancouver School Board has done a wonderful job supporting the band and strings program.  Rather than cutting it I would suggest that you expand it, and consider adding a choral component to it – the magical sound of children’s voices has largely been silenced in many of the Vancouver schools I have visited.  This should be the legacy of the VSB in these post-Olympic times.

What kind of message does this give to our children about the values of our society?

“Here’s an instrument. Now give it back.”

The social benefits of music are extraordinary – If a student holds a musical instrument then he or she can’t hold a knife, or a joint, or a needle or a crack pipe – or a gun.

If a student is in a choir or a band or an orchestra, they are communicating through the universal art of music at the heart of our community.

After a recent VSO educational concert of Beethoven’s music at the Orpheum in Vancouver, a teacher wrote to us with a comment penned by a young student who had spent his brief life in foster care due to a litany of misfortune that made Beethoven’s disability seem negligible by comparison.  He wrote:

“It was the most beautiful building I have ever seen

  • it was the most wonderful music I’ve ever heard
  • it was the greatest day of my life.”

That is the power of music – to heal, to inspire, to communicate, to transform and so much else besides.

Beethoven had no choice but to live in a world of silence.

Please, do not let your choice bring silence to the world of a single child.

Thank you for your attention.


Bramwell Tovey

Music Director Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

Deanna Durbin 1921-2013


Deanna Durbin has passed away at the age of 91. I can’t pretend to be a connoisseur of her movies, nor can I speak with any authority on how she compares with her contemporaries. The tributes are pretty fulsome concerning her movie career. Her dislike of celebrity Hollywood is well known. The Daily Telegraph obituary describes her debut as “ enchanting 14 year old with a remarkable voice.” She retired on her own terms, before the age of 30, disinterested in a new project for which many felt she’d be perfect – My Fair Lady.

I had always admired her voice in grainy black and white movies. (Yes, have to admit it – love those ol’ b&w movies. One of my more nerdish accomplishments is to have gone backstage at the Hollywood Bowl, shaken hands and chatted for 30 seconds with Robert Osborne of TCM.) Via a rather circuitous route, I rediscovered the sound of Durbin’s voice almost by accident.

A few months ago, browsing through an anthology edited by A.N.Wilson, The Faber Book of London, I came across some paragraphs from Anthony Powell’s Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant,  part of  his sequence of novels called A Dance To The Music Of Time. Powell was writing about a bomb site in the middle of what he called “Cheerless Soho.”

“…the basement [of the “bombed-out public house on the corner”] was revealed as a sunken garden, or site of archaeological excavation long abandoned.”  Powell indulges in a “luxurious fantasy” and imagines the scene, replete with a song “…strong and marvellously sweet, of the blonde woman on crutches, that itinerant prima donna of the highways whose voice I had not heard since the day, years before when…he had talked of getting married.”

The vivid writing takes you to Soho, which I first remember around 1960, the date of Powell’s book. My father drove me up to London every few weeks for a haircut at the corner of Brewer and Wardour Streets. This was the Soho of the seedy Paul Raymond and his mistress, the glamorous Fiona Richmond, although our Salvation Army commitments meant such goings on were unknown to me. (I lived through the Profumo Affair in 1963 but must have been shielded from it, only discovering the scandal, with relish, during tedious school history lessons some time later.)

Raymond’s notorious business interests and his relationship with Richmond are the subject of a new and not very well reviewed film The Look of Lovestarring Steve Coogan and Anna Friel. Raymond’s lifetime was spent  building first, a soft-porn and then a property empire before he died, aged 82 in 2008. Fiona Richmond is still very much alive but seems to be as reclusive as Durbin was in later life, as can be seen from this interview about her memories of those times in the Daily Telegraph.

Powell was also writing of memories, but from an earlier time, before the Blitz that destroyed the pub on the corner. Musing on his ‘itinerant prima donna’ he quoted two lines:

Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar,

Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell?

Intrigued, I went off in search of the quotation and was unexpectedly moved by what I discovered. Originally written under the pseudonym Laurence Hope, the writer was Adela Florence Nicholson. A soldier’s wife during the days of the Raj, in 1904, after her husband’s death, she died by her own hand. In 1901 she had published The Garden of Kama with great success, although some mystery is attached. Nicholson believed there would be no interest in such poems from a woman, hence the alias.

Amy Woodforde-Finden, who also lived in India for  a time, set some of Nicholson’s poems to music under the title Four Indian Love Lyrics. The  most famous of these became known as The Kashmiri Song. This setting contained the quotation I’d been looking for, both musically and literally.

Youtube came up trumps and I discovered Deanna Durbin singing the song to an exquisite Hollywood orchestration in the movie Hers to Hold from 1943 (see below.)

Bear in mind, these were sentimental times. Think of these three creative women, Nicholson, Woodforde-Finden and Durbin, who did not know one another, each a contributor to this enchanting 20th century classic. The song was extremely popular in the first half of the last century but became lost to us as popular music became less sentimental and frankly, more clichéd.

I love Durbin’s extraordinary voice, as rich as claret, even and smooth across the tessitura, with its amazing capacity to sustain long and beautiful lines and her subtle, almost instrumental use of portamento (i.e., sliding between notes.) Consider also how she sings the very last note, on the word  ‘now’. Technically, she needs to breathe but Durbin inflects the word with an extremely simple poignancy, as if to end the dream and invoke the present. The note is not entirely pure, but even the small blemish contributes to the emotion of the moment.

One further thing – Durbin was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Having spent a decade in the Canadian city, where honesty and straightforwardness are highly regarded, it’s no surprise she hated Hollywood.

RIP Deanna Durbin 1921-2013