The stock image of the classical conductor is of a grand, imperious figure, lofty upon his podium, piercing the air with his baton.
That wasn’t Maestro Boris Brott.
“He was always physically engaged with the orchestra,” recalls Christopher Deacon, the president and CEO of Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, who watched Mr. Brott conduct the NAC Orchestra and others many times. “He really leaned in. With his animated gestures it was almost as if he was giving a bear hug to the orchestra.”
“He loved it so much,” added Amanda Forsyth, the NAC Orchestra’s former principal cellist and a lifelong friend. “There was so much joy when he conducted.”
Boris Brott remembered by his peers as an unforgettable conductor, mentor and visionary
‘A senseless loss’: I will remember Boris Brott as a long-time friend with a zeal for classical music
Mr. Brott’s warm embrace of the orchestra extended to the audience. He delighted in talking to them, drawing them in, sharing his great passion for classical music.
Although Mr. Brott performed before two Popes and led orchestras from London to L.A., he took a special pleasure in introducing the classics to young people and the uninitiated. He became known for his imaginative kids’ concerts with the NAC Orchestra and later developed a sideline as a motivational speaker, turning a room full of employees from IBM or McDonald’s into an impromptu symphony.
His great belief in the symphony orchestra saw him expend much of his career and his seemingly inexhaustible energy on establishing and building them across Canada. And he went further, creating Canada’s first professional training orchestra for young musicians, the National Academy Orchestra, and showcasing them at his annual Brott Music Festival in Hamilton.
It was in Hamilton, his long-time home, that Mr. Brott, 78, died on April 5, apparently after being struck by a hit-and-run driver – a tragedy that colleagues throughout the classical community called a staggering loss. “He was cut down in full flight,” Mr. Deacon said. “He still had a million things going on.”
Mr. Brott’s own introduction to classical music began in the womb. His mother was cellist Lotte Brott (née Goetzel) and his father was violinist-composer-conductor Alexander Brott, founder of the McGill Chamber Orchestra (now the Orchestre classique de Montréal). Boris Jeremiah Brott was born on March 14,1944, in Montreal. While his younger brother, Denis, no doubt with some maternal influence, would become a renowned cellist, Boris chose his father’s instrument and made his onstage debut playing the violin at the age of five during a Montreal Symphony Orchestra matinee.
Mr. Brott soon decided, however, that he preferred to be in front of the orchestra and traded his violin for the baton. Studying with Pierre Monteux and Igor Markevitch in his teens, he won top conducting prizes at international competitions in Mexico in 1958 and Liverpool in 1962. Following a stint as assistant conductor with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, he began his long international career as conductor of Britain’s Northern Sinfonia in Newcastle upon Tyne (which toured to Montreal’s Expo 67) and the touring orchestra of the Royal Ballet.
In 1968, Mr. Brott took a first prize in the Dimitri Mitropoulos International Music Competition at Carnegie Hall, which led to a season with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra as assistant conductor to Leonard Bernstein. He would later credit Mr. Bernstein’s popular concerts for young people as the inspiration for his own educational programming.
Back in Canada, Mr. Brott began running orchestras of his own, becoming, in Mr. Deacon’s words, “an institution builder.” In 1969, he took charge of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra, originally an amateur outfit, and over two decades grew it into a major professional player. Under his artistic directorship – and with help from executive director Betty Webster – it expanded its size and reach and birthed a bevy of smaller ensembles, most famously the Canadian Brass.
Behind the scenes, Mr. Brott would marry Ms. Webster’s daughter, Ardyth, a lawyer and author, in 1976. They had three children, Alexandra, David and Benjamin. His son Ben remembers his father as both fervent and filled with love. “He never held a grudge,” he said. “He could fight and be fierce and wrap his arms around you right afterwards.”
About the same time that he was building the Hamilton Philharmonic, Mr. Brott briefly helmed the symphonies in Thunder Bay and Regina, and was principal conductor for two radio orchestras: the CBC Winnipeg Orchestra and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. In the early 1980s, he accepted another challenge, transitioning Halifax’s bankrupt Atlantic Symphony Orchestra into Symphony Nova Scotia. By then, Mr. Brott had a reputation for business savvy to go along with his artistic credentials. He may well have inherited it from his mother. Lotte Brott managed the McGill Chamber Orchestra up until her death in 1998 and was known for her entrepreneurial approach – she is credited with introducing corporate sponsorship of the arts to Quebec.
Pinchas Zukerman, former music director of the NAC Orchestra, said he was in awe of Mr. Brott’s fearless pursuit of funding. “He wasn’t afraid at any time to walk up the hill, so to speak, and ask for more money for the arts. He believed in their importance to a country and he made so many people aware of that.”
Under Mr. Zukerman’s tenure, Mr. Brott’s regular gigs at the NAC were made official when he was named principal youth and family conductor. He took the job seriously. Kids “are about the toughest audience you will ever have – you have to work to win them over,” he told The Globe and Mail in a 2008 interview. “But you are opening a new world to them and it’s not just the music, but the salutary effects of the mental, emotional and creative developments that are stimulated.”
That’s not to say he didn’t have fun. Mr. Brott would introduce himself as “Uncle Bobo,” wear his signature colourful bowties and come up with inventive ways of introducing young people to the classics. Mr. Deacon recalls one program involving a performance of the Beethoven symphony Wellington’s Victory. “He’d have the orchestra members dressed in the hockey jerseys of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens to symbolically demonstrate the battle that the piece commemorates,” he said.
When not in Ottawa or Hamilton, Mr. Brott kept up his connection with Montreal concertgoers. He became an associate conductor with the McGill Chamber Orchestra in 1989 and, after his mother’s death, its leader in all but name. When his father died in 2005, he succeeded him as artistic director.
“He sustained the orchestra after his father died, otherwise probably it would have fallen apart,” said Taras Kulish, executive director of the group, which rebranded as Orchestre classique de Montréal (OCM) in 2019. Mr. Kulish said Mr. Brott was hands-on in many aspects of the orchestra, from community outreach to fundraising, which was inspiring. “He cared so much about what he did and he transferred that to everybody he worked with,” he said.
“He also had a tremendous ear for talent,” Mr. Kulish adds, noting how Mr. Brott hired a pair of rising Canadian classical stars, pianist Jan Lisiecki and cellist Stéphane Tétreault, when they were both still in their early teens.
Mr. Brott’s devotion to young artists fuelled his creation of the National Academy Orchestra in 1989. The year-long program offers student musicians a chance to be mentored by concertmasters and principal players from major orchestras. The NAO also performs public concerts alongside guest artists during the summer Brott Music Festival, which Mr. Brott ran with Ardyth. As of 2021, the NAO has turned out at least 1,200 musicians who have gone on to professional careers.
In 2015, Mr. Brott decided to do the same for opera singers by launching BrottOpera – a program also meant to fill the gap left by the demise of Opera Hamilton. His co-artistic director was Mr. Kulish, a former opera singer. “He had conducted opera all over Italy, he just loved singers,” Mr. Kulish said, “so he asked me to help him.”
Ms. Forsyth, who with her husband Mr. Zukerman has frequently taught for the NAO, said Mr. Brott’s understanding of musicians made him easy to work with. “He was always on your side. There was never any argument about what the interpretation should be from the soloist.”
Sharon Azrieli experienced the same thing when Mr. Brott conducted opera. “He would lift you up as a singer,” said the Montreal-born soprano. “Some conductors have their own idea of how the music should go, but he understood that you need it to support you.”
Beyond the performance, he was also concerned with the well-being of artists and saw to it that the young musicians he mentored had other skills. “He was very keen to ensure that they were trained in the business side of music and how to promote and advocate for themselves,” said his good friend Deborah Corber, the board chair of OCM. “He cared about the whole person, not just the musician.”
As an artist himself, Mr. Brott felt he reached a career pinnacle when he conducted Leonard Bernstein’s once-controversial Mass in 2000 for a Vatican City audience that included Pope John Paul II. Thirteen years later, he would again conduct at the Vatican before Pope Francis. Mr. Brott was proudly Jewish – his father’s family were Latvian immigrants, while his mother had escaped Nazi Germany as a girl – but he saw no contradiction in playing Papal concerts and Christian music. “One must not forget that Jesus was a Jew,” he once pointed out, before conducting Handel’s Messiah in Jerusalem in 2004.
Later in life, Mr. Brott channelled some of his surfeit enthusiasm into his motivational talks, delivering them to a variety of clients, from Fortune 500 companies to NGOs. Ms. Corber remembers hiring him to speak to a not-for-profit group several years ago. Mr. Brott’s presentation included providing the attendees with xylophone-like tone bars and conducting them in a performance of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”
“I cannot tell what a thrill it was for my team,” Ms. Corber said. “People were not only excited to make music, but they were inspired to then start listening to classical music. He had a profound effect on them. That’s what Boris did.”
Mr. Brott’s achievements didn’t go unappreciated. His accolades over the years included the Order of Canada, the Order of Ontario and l’Ordre national du Québec. In 2007, he received the City of Hamilton’s Lifetime Achievement Arts Award, one of many kudos bestowed on him by his favourite city. He was also a Fellow of Britain’s Royal Society of Arts and a Knight of Malta. Mr. Zukerman says he deserves even more. “We all need to thank him,” he said. “Someone like Boris only comes along once in a century or so.”
Mr. Brott leaves his wife, Ardyth Webster Brott; his children, Alex, David and Ben Brott; and four grandchildren.