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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 17, No. 8 May 2012

Sounds Like Spring at the Montreal Chamber Music Festival

by Wah Keung Chan / May 1, 2012

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Celebrated cellist Denis Brott is riding high. Tourism Quebec recently awarded his 17-year-old Montreal Chamber Music Festival a grand prize in the medium budget category, in part thanks to a partnership with American Public Radio, which broadcasts the festival’s concerts to over 6 million listeners. For Brott, the secret to his success is in the art of collaboration that is at the heart of chamber music.

From concerts at the chalet up on top of Mount Royal to downtown at the St. James United Church and now to the beautiful St. George’s Church, the festival has been about creating music in historical venues that add to the atmosphere of the musical experience. “People were initially skeptical about the sound, but we made it good with our stage setup, which costs about $30,000 a year,” he explained.

“The idea behind the festival was to create a mini Marlboro Festival,” said Brott, “where I played for Casals, Serkin and Schneider. I want to match young Canadian musicians with seasoned veterans.”

Music background
Denis Brott was born into a family of musicians. His father was the conductor and composer Alexander Brott, founder of the McGill Chamber Orchestra, and his mother was the cellist Lotte Brott, who ran the orchestra. Music was the most important thing in the household. His older brother Boris was also a musical prodigy.

Growing up, Brott took on the cello and devoted himself to music as a way to get attention from his parents. After elementary school, he was home-schooled, studying with various tutors. He looked forward to summer camp at Aspen, from age 12, as he enjoyed playing with other musicians.

After finishing high school, at 16, Brott studied for a year in Europe before doing his bachelor’s with Janos Starker at Indiana University, which proved to be a horrible experience.

It was his teacher, the famous Russian cellist Gregor Piatigorsky at the University of Southern California, who made Brott look at being a musician as a calling. “He taught me that it encompasses life experiences and how it’s a wordless language. Music begins where words end,” said Brott.

As parents, Brott and his wife, Julie, made sure their three daughters and their son studied music until age 12, at which point they were free to stop, and all four did. “I’m saddened we didn’t insist they retain some music even as amateurs, since there is no greater joy than playing an instrument. It’s another language and it’s another emotional outlet,” said Brott. “Ironically, my daughter sits her four-month-old in my practice room and she is googly-eyed.”

2012 Montreal Chamber Music Festival
The 2012 edition of the Montreal Chamber Music Festival runs from May 10 to June 2. Opening the festival is soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian in recital, on May 10 and again on May 12, in a program from her album Tango Notturno. American cellist Colin Carr takes on the Six Suites for Solo Cello by Bach over two nights, May 16 and 17. On the third week, the Pacifica Quartet presents the entire set of the Shostakovich String Quartets over four nights, May 22-25. The festival also features the Canadian premiere of the James Ehnes Quartet in two programs: Ravel on May 27 and Bartók on May 28.

Brott’s career took off with his second-prize win at the 1973 Munich International Cello Competition. In 1980, Brott joined the acclaimed Orford String Quartet, replacing Marcel Saint-Cyr for an eight-year period that included the award-wining recordings of Beethoven’s complete string quartets. “That was one of my highlights,” said Brott.

Canada Council Musical Instrument Bank
In the early 1980s, Brott found that his career activities necessitated a better instrument, and he came up with the idea of the Canadian Council Musical Instrument Bank. “When I was in Los Angeles, I met up with Richard D. Colburn, a businessman and amateur musician. I had previously known his daughter as a fellow student at Aspen. He was an instrument collector and lent out his instruments to promising musicians, including myself,” said Brott. “I thought there should be something like this in Canada, but that would be open to all musicians. I wrote to over 30 chief executives in Canada in the early 1980s, and got polite rejections, except from William Turner of Consolidated Bathurst. I met him in Montreal on a Saturday morning in 1983, and on top of his turntable was a Beethoven LP, so I had a good feeling.”

“He sat on the board of the Royal Bank and was passionate about music,” said Brott. “I told him about my idea of raising funds and getting the Canada Council to administer the loan.” Within two days, Turner raised $250,000 through his connections with CEOs of TD, Royal Bank, Imperial Oil and Bombardier.

Brott and Turner then met with Gilles Lefebvre, who was associate director of the Canada Council, to set up the administration of the bank, which was officially launched in 1985. In recognition of his own efforts, the first instrument purchased by the bank, a 1706 David Tecchler cello that had previously belonged to the first cellist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, was loaned to Brott for the duration of his career. To date, the Instrument Bank has 15 instruments, which are on loan to promising Canadian musicians through an intense blind competition every three years. The next competition takes place this September.

Brott also remembers Colburn fondly for his funding of the Colburn School in Los Angeles, which has the reputation of being the Juilliard of California. “It’s a great model because students get free tuition and live in dormitories on site, and the school is next door to Disney Hall, where music is made,” said Brott. “We should have had the same thing in Montreal, with the original design of the Conservatory next to the new Maison symphonique. It was a lost opportunity.”

Festival fever
Meanwhile, things have been looking up at the Montreal Chamber Music Festival. In the last few years, the festival has moved out of the Brott’s home to a permanent office, and taken on a season manager in Davis Joachim. Their annual Gala continues to be a great fundraiser, netting $150,000 last year in combined ticket sales and silent auction items.

Part of this success is due to Brott’s ability to entice the business world to lend its support. “Chamber music is about team work, and the corporate world can relate to our pursuit of excellence in music making,” he claims. “The festival is an example for corporations seeking to match young talent with seasoned professionals. We’ve also been successful in getting corporations to commit to three-year terms.”

Looking ahead, Brott is excited about some new ideas. This year’s festival includes a masterclass by Colin Carr, on May 15, and Brott expects to make this a regular event. He would like to expand his concert series to New York. Next year’s festival will open with an exchange with the Boston Chamber Music Society, and he hopes to create more exchanges with major music schools in Canada and the US. He would like to bring the idea of concerts in large private homes to Montreal. A summer resident of Saint-Sauveur, he plans to bring chamber music to that resort area after the regular Saint-Sauveur Arts Festival.

Talk of expanding the Festival year round is now tempered, as Brott doesn’t want to be in competition with other groups. In fact, he’s floating the idea of creating a chamber music alliance, similarly to the contemporary music alliance Le Vivier, he has commissioned a study on how groups can work together.

He is most excited when he talks about bringing to Canada the idea of the New York String Orchestra Seminar, a 10-day program that unites high school and university students together in late December. “At the end of the 10-day practice sessions, there is a concert,” said Brott. “You’ll hear what great playing is about.”


Chamber Music... and all that Jazz!
Also on at the MCMF, the TD Jazz Series caters to classical music lovers wanting to put a swing in their step. Programmed with a chamber music sensibilty in mind, the four-concert series features performers including pianist Eldar Djangirov’s trio in their Montreal debut on May 11. For a taste of New Orleans, be sure to check out the venerable Preservation Hall Jazz Band on May 18.

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