Review: Cancer be damned. Hollywood Bowl fave Bramwell Tovey reclaims the stage

Bramwell Tovey at the Hollywood Bowl on Tuesday.
Bramwell Tovey at the Hollywood Bowl on Tuesday.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Conductor and composer Bramwell Tovey led the Los Angeles Philharmonic with the L.A. Master Chorale at the Hollywood Bowl on Tuesday night in “Britain at the Bowl,” a delightful assortment of some of the most stirring and clever music to come out of England in the last 400 years.

The British-born Tovey was his usual warm, energetic and witty self.

What a relief. The music man is back.

Tovey, a fan favorite since his first Bowl concert in 2003 (he became principal guest conductor of the L.A. Phil at the Bowl in 2008), is in the midst of a six-month treatment for a rare form of cancer, diagnosed in June. He told a Providence Journal reporter that he felt a lump in his chest and immediately visited a walk-in clinic for X-rays and an ultrasound.

Music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra for 18 years, Tovey on Saturday retweeted a response to someone dissing Canada’s health care system. Tovey, 66, said he went from emergency to diagnosis all in one day. Biopsy immediately — op June 10, chemo protocol June 17 and tonight I’m conducting the LAPhil@HollywoodBowl total cost so far? $0.”

Bramwell Tovey conducts "Britain at the Bowl" on Tuesday.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Indeed, after canceling two dates with the New York Philharmonic at Colorado’s Bravo! Vail Music Festival in July, Tovey conducted the L.A. Phil on Saturday in the Bowl’s annual “Tchaikovsky Spectacular With Fireworks.” Then on Tuesday night Tovey, who is scheduled to give his first concert in September as the new artistic advisor and conductor of the Rhode Island Philharmonic, took the Bowl stage again for a night of music from his homeland.

His face leaner, making his eyes more prominent, Tovey conducted confidently with both arms raised. After an invigorating rendition of our national anthem, Tovey turned to “God Save the Queen.” Scattered Brits in the audience stood and sang along.

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In Benjamin Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” Tovey reveled in the composer’s precisely drawn, colorful variations on a theme by Purcell. Only in the concluding fugue did the piece lose some of its lucidity.

After intermission, baritone Thomas Allen joined this touching minifestival of national pride and perseverance with memorable renditions of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Fair Moon, to Thee I Sing” and “When I was a Lad,” both from “H.M.S. Pinafore.”

Allen, 74, sang with easy authority, turning “As Some Day it May Happen” from “The Mikado,” a.k.a. the “Little List” song, into a good-humored, equal-opportunity litany of unsavory characters and dignitaries deserving of punishment. At one point, there was even a visual joke: A long red tie fell out of Allen’s score.

Bramwell Tovey at the Hollywood Bowl
Tovey having a little fun with the Bowl audience.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

In “Thank You, Mr. Coward!” Tovey showed his substantial skills as an arranger in such songs as “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” and the patriotic “London Pride,” which opened with a vintage recording of an air-raid siren conjuring London during the Blitz.

The latter proved a moving lead-in to Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” March No. 1. When the famous tune in the trio, “Land of Hope and Glory,” kicked in, Allen stood and sang along with fellow Brits. At the end, the Master Chorale’s singers waved Union Jacks.

“Britain at the Bowl” was the second of Tovey’s three Hollywood appearances. The next concert on Aug. 20 is an all-Russian affair featuring Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” narrated by actor John C. Reilly, with the puppetry of Blind Summit, a London-based ensemble.

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