For decades, Boris Brott was a persuasive and indefatigable voice championing classical music.
His techniques were imaginative and striking. There was the time that Brott was conducting the National Arts Centre Orchestra in a family concert that focused on the human voice. During the performance, he took a camera and inserted it down his throat, revealing his well-used vocal cords to a crowd of 2,000 on a screen onstage. The audience could hardly forget such a stunt – which was the whole idea behind it.
Brott, an internationally recognized conductor, the industrious founder of the Brott Music Festival in Hamilton, an in-demand motivational speaker, creator of National Academy Orchestra and the artistic director of the Orchestre classique de Montréal, died on Tuesday after being hit by a car while walking in Hamilton. He was 78.
“He set the standard on how to introduce classical music to young audiences,” said Geneviève Cimon, senior director of learning and community engagement at the National Arts Centre. “In reaching young people, he never talked down to them, and in doing so he managed to engage them and their parents.”
In 1987, the great Canadian violinist James Ehnes played with the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal. He was 11 years old, and Brott was his first-ever conductor.
“He treated me with a dignity that a child would never expect to receive,” said Ehnes. “He made me feel like I had something to say, and I’m sure there are hundreds of Canadian musicians that have had the same type of experience. He was a mentor, a friend and a colleague, and he will be missed as a mammoth musical figure and an educational presence.”
He was born in Montreal in 1944 to violinist and composer Alexander Brott and cellist Lotte Brott, the founders of the Orchestre classique de Montréal. At age 5, he made his debut as a child prodigy, playing a violin solo at the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. In his 20s, he served as assistant conductor to the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein. Despite his pedigree and associations, though, he concentrated on creating opportunities.
“He had the talent for whatever career he wanted, and while he did wonderful concerts, he decided that wouldn’t be enough,” said the Canadian conductor and trombonist Alain Trudel. “He had profound desire to build things. He created opportunities in a classical music world where opportunities are hard to come by.”
From 1969 to 1990, Brott was artistic director and conductor of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra, which he grew substantially over his tenure.
“He promoted, promoted, promoted,” said Steve Paikin, a Hamilton native who anchors the current affairs program The Agenda with Steve Paikin on TVOntario. “Classical music is always a tough sell in Canada, and unless you get out there, it’s just going to fail. And Boris wouldn’t let it fail. He got out there.”
On April 20, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (VSO) will present a concert celebrating Ukrainian music and artistry. Brott, whose grandmother was from Ukraine, was scheduled to conduct.
“Boris was the first maestro we thought of,” said Angela Elster, the VSO’s president and chief executive officer. “Not just because of his heritage, but also because of his unbelievable ability to bridge audiences to music. He helped people understand the mission of the composer.”
The VSO is currently working with the Brott family to include a tribute to the late conductor as part of the Ukrainian concert.
In the many years he participated in the family concerts with the NAC Orchestra, Brott championed Canadian composers and brought in astronauts and Olympians, as well as comedian Eugene Levy and cartoonist Lynn Johnston. He was also an enthusiastic and often flamboyant storyteller. During an NAC Halloween concert, Brott was rolled out on stage reclined in a double-bass case.
“He had a flair for the theatrical, and a visionary approach to programming,” said the NAC’s Cimon.
At times, Brott’s passion could boil over. In rehearsals, everything had to be perfect – he could get frustrated.
“He would work himself into a tizzy,” said Canadian cellist Amanda Forsyth, whose mother worked with the conductor as manager of the Alberta Ballet Company. “My mother once brought in a large bottle of Pepto Bismol and attached a note to it and put it on his stand in the pit. The note said, ‘Now be gentle with yourself, Boris, or you’re going to have to drink this.’”
Brott wasn’t always gentle, but he had a strong sense of purpose.
“I hope that Canada takes pride in one of its great heroes who worked hard and believed in the value system of art, music, friendship and family,” said Pinchas Zukerman, the Israeli-American violinist, husband of Forsyth and former music director of the NAC Orchestra. “It’s so important in this time of turbulence.”