Home     Content     Articles      La Scena Musicale     Search   

La Scena Musicale - Vol. 12, No. 10 June 2007

Brott Music Festival at 20

by Wah Keung Chan / June 14, 2007

For many Canadians, the City of Hamilton would not normally be among the top of the list of the country’s notable music centres but each summer and fall for the last 20 years, the city has been home to the Brott Music Festival, a unique 20-week festival that has contributed to both the musical life of the region and to the training of some of tomorrow's Canadian professional musicians. To celebrate this milestone, the festival will present Canada's biggest concert of the summer in the form of Mahler's monumental 8th Symphony (a.k.a. the notorious Symphony of a Thousand). At the helm will be the festival's mastermind and jet-setting conductor Boris Brott, the Montreal native who, for the last 38 years, has resided in Hamilton.

Brott's relationship with Hamilton may never have started if his mentor Leonard Bernstein, had not advised the then 25-year-old to "go spread your own wings" as artistic director of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra (HPO) rather than becoming Georg Szell's assistant in Cleveland. The young Brott was riding high on a string of successes. At 17, he was assistant conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and he was winning prizes in major international competitions leading up to the Dimitri Mitropoulos International Conductors Competition in New York which awarded him a two-year apprenticeship with Bernstein. Over the years, Brott has contributed to at least six Canadian orchestras.

In 1988, Brott founded the Boris Brott Summer Music Festival in Hamilton, with Ardyth Webster, his wife of 31 years and with whom he has three children, as the festival’s Executive Director. "Then Hamilton mayor Robert Morrow suggested I start a cultural event in the summer and he provided the funding," Brott recalls. Initially, the festival was a five-concert event lasting over 11 days with a budget of $50,000. The following year, Brott came up with the idea of the National Academy Orchestra (NAO) to partner recent music graduates (Brott is adamant that they also be referred to as professionals) with established professionals in a symbiotic mentor-apprentice relationship. "My wife and I were organizing a concert at the National Capital Commission in Ottawa and to supplement the strings section, I paired members of my father's Les Jeunes Virtuose de Montréal with members of the National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO)." The concert was rained out, but the rehearsal proved fulfilling enough for the seasoned pros and young professionals alike that Brott decided to make the mentorship program a regular part of his festival. To pay the apprentices a wage, he convinced the then Minister of Labour Barbara McDougall of the need to help make Canadian music graduates more competitive in the job market against the more experienced Americans. Hearing Brott talk about the necessity for training, mentoring and entrepreneurship courses makes one wonder why they didn't exist before. His credibility on these topics clearly stems from his years of experience in the industry.

In 1990, after 22 years of tenure at the HPO, Brott was dealt a surprising blow when he was asked to leave. "Its development from a community orchestra to a full-time professional ensemble with a 42-week contract and more subscribers than the Hamilton Tiger-Cat football team has been my life's work,"says Brott. Nevertheless, he’s quite philosophical and frank about what went wrong. "I was lucky to have had a lot of success early in my life, too early. I was brought up with adults from an early age, and my personality really did not mature to the point where I really listened and understood what leadership was all about." Brott readily admits that he had been a dictator and explains, "Often, insecurity makes you aggressive because you want to protect yourself. I wish I had the knowledge and wisdom that I do now although I'm constantly learning. The process of collaborating with musicians is a learning process, not a teaching process. I needed to control myself and learn how to work with people better, understand myself and my relationships and my communication skills better. It's not everyone else's fault that I've had this problem in my career, it's my fault."

From 1992 to 1995, Brott and Ardyth both enrolled in law at the University of Western Ontario and this proved to be a turning point for the maestro. "You learn everything you need to know to get along with people in being taught by the Socratic method. You learn to argue with logic, approach each subject with passion and each with a point of view, but you have to know when to put it away. Before you go to bed, you say, I agree with this and not that, and then you go on to live your normal life. It doesn't overtake who you are, otherwise you would not be able to fight a case in court."

The Brotts’ training has helped steer the festival through 20 years of zero deficits with Ardyth managing the finances and Brott looking after the music. "We argue about budgets all the time, but as an artistic director, you can’t be both the inspiration and the control at the same time," says Brott. "We are quite conservative. We don't do anything we can't afford to do." A case in point is Mahler’s 8th. Brott cited hall rental and advertising fees in Toronto that were three times more than in Hamilton as the reason why they decided against taking the performance to Toronto. Instead, for the first time, he’s lending the NAO to Agnes Grossman's production of Barber of Seville in her Toronto Summer Music Festival while looking into doing some concerts at the 450-seat Glenn Gould Studio, a venue that would be easier to fill. "I teach my apprentices the importance of being practical," he says.

Looking back, Brott is thankful. "It's more difficult to re-build a career than to build one (from scratch). And still today, there are places where I am not a welcome guest and I have to live with that. I'm blessed to have had the opportunities I've had and I live a full and happy life. I'm very lucky to have had the experiences, the parents, the wife and kids I've had." Since 1995, he has been busy developing a second career as a maestro jet-setting between the New West Orchestra in California, the McGill Chamber Orchestra in Montreal, and the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa (where he is Principal Youth and Family Conductor) as well as doing various guest conducting appearances. Since 1995, Brott has been a motivational speaker to Fortune 500 companies around the world talking about the key to successful teamwork using music as the example.

Musically, what does he look forward to in the future? "I would like to do all the Bruckner symphonies and to re-examine all of Vaughan Williams’ symphonies, and I’d like to explore more contemporary music. We have to develop a way to speak with our own voice to a new generation and do so in a way that is acceptable to our existing audiences, and that's a real challenge." Brott’s constant hunger for self-improvement and for innovation becomes even more evident when he says, “Your reach must extend your grasp what’s a heaven for?” n

The Brott Music Festival celebrates its 20th anniversary with a busy season, the highlight being the performance of Mahler's 8th Symphony with Boris Brott conducting on August 23rd at the Great Hall in Hamilton Place.

The key to the work, says Brott, "is to give time for the folk episodes to be charming but not rob the momentum of the piece as a unit. Bruckner is not as indulgent as Mahler." Info : www.brottmusic.com.

(c) La Scena Musicale