Bramwell Tovey mixes a mean musical cocktail
— It's tempting to call Bramwell Tovey the Noel Coward of conductors.

In the past decade the native Brit has become renowned for his droll and witty remarks from concert stages.

In June, as host of the New York Philharmonic Summertime Classics series, Tovey guided the orchestra through a dramatic, seductive performance of pieces from the ballet score "Raymonda" by Russian composer Alexander Glazunov.

After the applause came to a rest, Tovey faced the full house at Avery Fisher Hall and offered his opinion of Glazunov, a contemporary of Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Prokofiev.

"I think he was right at the top of a second-class act," Tovey said.

The audience broke out in laughter.

Still, Noel Coward isn't quite the right comparison for Tovey, who returns Tuesday for his third summer as principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl.

Yes, Tovey is urbane and wears his learning lightly. It's just that his elegance comes out in his conducting and not his, well, look.

On a June afternoon in Manhattan, seated in an old-world Italian cafe, the portly Tovey, 57, was wearing brown corduroys and a brown shirt with a zipper that ran up the collar. Actually, the shirt was kind of stylish.

There was no mistaking, though, his inner rumpledness.

Tovey has a cheerfully big head that appears to sit directly on his shoulders. His nose juts outward and drops abruptly south, like a broken rooster beak. An inveterate cricket player, Tovey has taken one too many balls to the face.

"How would I describe myself?" Tovey said, thinking for a moment. "Cosmetically challenged."

Tovey enjoys his reputation as the witty bloke whom everybody loves to gather around at the pub. It's not an act. It's who he is.

At the same time, his Falstaffian image overshadows a fascinatingly diverse musician, a champion of contemporary music and a composer himself who writes in surprisingly dark and unflinching tones.

"I'm just this whole cocktail," he said.

Tovey grew up in a modest home in East London. He descended from a long line of Salvation Army evangelists who spread the Protestant word with the fire of the Holy Ghost and the sound of brass bands.

Tovey played the piano, tuba and violin by the time he was a teenager.

Hs father, a World War II vet, always wanted be a professional musician, yet lived out a melancholic life as an accountant for a jewelry company. He died of cancer when Tovey was 15.

Nobody laid out a red carpet for Tovey to enter the privileged world of art. He made it on his own street talent and smarts. The artful dodger became the conductor who could lead anybody to classical music.