From childhood on, all he ever wanted to do was make music. Something of a prodigy, Victor Feldbrill first conducted the Toronto Symphony at the age of 18 in 1943, and went on to have an association with that orchestra over seven decades. He was an enthusiastic and tireless promoter of Canadian composers such as John Weinzweig, Harry Somers, Norma Beecroft and Louis Applebaum, many of them his close friends. Whether he was conducting in England, Japan, China or in Toronto and Winnipeg, he stubbornly insisted that Canadian orchestral music must be on the program.
Often he had to overcome the fears of management that new music would drive away concertgoers and the objections of some musicians, who thought it was too difficult to play.
Mr. Feldbrill, who died of a heart attack at his Toronto condo on June 17, aged 96, heard his first concert as a child in elementary school. He accompanied his chum Morry Kernerman, who had been given two tickets to the visiting Detroit Symphony by the painter Arthur Lismer, then teaching art to children at the Art Gallery of Toronto.
“I was impressed with everything about the concert,” Mr. Feldbrill told the music critic William Littler in 2014. “It opened a new world to me.”
He was thrilled to be given his first violin by his parents when he was 9, and undertook studies with Sigmund Steinberg, a violinist with the TSO. At King Edward Public School, he organized his fellow students into an ensemble.
By the time he entered Harbord Collegiate at 13, he had such strong leadership skills that the head of the music program, Brian McCool, was happy to pass him his baton to rehearse the school’s orchestra as concertmaster.
Harbord was famous at the time for its music and arts program. Mr. Feldbrill told his biographer Walter Pitman that the vote of confidence when his teacher handed him the baton was something he never forgot.
Victor Feldbrill was born in Toronto on April 4, 1924, the first of three children of Helen (born Lederman) and Nathan Feldbrill, Yiddish-speaking Jewish arrivals from Poland. Victor and his sisters, Eileen and Ruth, grew up on Markham Street, then an immigrant receiving area. Nathan, like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, was a milkman; he worked for Silverwood’s Dairy and, according to family lore, gave a free bottle to any customer who was too poor to pay. The parents later ran a small grocery store.
When Victor was 15, he met Zelda Mann, then 14, at a dance for Jewish youth and was smitten. She, too, was a Harbord student, though not particularly musical. Theirs was a great love story that lasted until Zelda’s death at age 70 in 1995.
The attractive student couple was asked by the Women’s Committee of the TSO to help organize young people’s concerts to build future audiences, which they did. Soon Victor came to the attention of Sir Ernest MacMillan, conductor of the symphony, and Ettore Mazzoleni, the Swiss-born principal of the Toronto Conservatory of Music (now known as the Royal Conservatory of Music) and sole instructor in conducting in English Canada. These connections had a lasting impact on the young man’s life and career.
Eager for conducting experience, Victor took over conducting the UTSO (University of Toronto Symphony Orchestra) that had been founded by his friend John Weinzweig, and sponsored by the student administrative council. When the teenage conductor earned glowing reviews in the city’s newspapers, Sir Ernest MacMillan invited him to conduct the TSO.
By graduation time, the Second World War was in full swing. Mr. Steinberg, Victor’s violin teacher, heard that the Royal Canadian Navy was looking for musicians to perform in a travelling show, Meet the Navy, to rouse Canadians at home and entertain servicemen. The sparkling, professionally mounted show was performed across the country before touring the British Isles and later, after the Allied victory, the continent. Victor was ranked leading bandsman by the Royal Canadian Navy and played in the orchestra.
Finding himself in Britain in 1944 with the hit show, he used letters of introduction from Sir Ernest MacMillan and Mr. Mazzoleni to meet the great conductors of his era – Thomas Beecham, Adrian Boult, John Barbirolli – and sit in whenever they rehearsed their orchestras. He drew inspiration from these maestros and learned about programming: You had to give people not only what they wanted to hear again and again but something new and challenging. England also afforded the chance to build his collections of scores of the music he wanted to conduct some day, much of which had not been performed in Canada.
All of this he reported in letters to Zelda back in Toronto. In 1945, after the war ended, he returned home and married her at last. Their daughter Debbi Ross recalls their partnership: “My mom ran the household and anticipated his needs. He needed his own space, and quiet to become who he was.”
On a veterans grant, he enrolled at the Royal Conservatory, studying with Canadian violin soloist Kathleen Parlow toward an Artist Diploma, while Zelda pursued her studies to become a social worker. After graduating in 1949, he joined the first violins of the TSO, and conducted its pops and children’s concerts. He seized any opportunity to conduct the CBC Symphony Orchestra and made guest appearances with the BBC orchestras in England. In 1956, he left the violin section to devote himself solely to conducting. He was for a time assistant conductor of the TSO, before accepting a position as musical director of the 10-year-old Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.
He laid down three conditions before accepting the job: that the musicians be hired for the season instead of individual concerts, that the orchestra undertake a program to introduce classical music to young people, and that the work of Canadian composers be prominently featured. He helmed the WSO for 10 years, turning it into a robust musical institution, serious but not stuffy.
Among the distinguished soloists he invited was Glenn Gould, playing a Brahms piano concerto in 1959. But on another occasion he programmed the Beatles tune Michelle. “He listened very carefully to my Beatles records and he recognized the quality,” recalls Ms. Ross, then in her teens.
The WSO’s website notes in a tribute to Mr. Feldbrill that he last returned to guest-conduct the WSO in 2017, at the age of 93.
He made many appearances across Canada and abroad, and in 1967 conducted the first performances of the Harry Somers and Mavor Moore opera Louis Riel for the Canadian Opera Company. He conducted orchestras in the Soviet Union in 1963, 1966 and 1967, introducing Canadian works such as Mr. Weinzweig’s Symphonic Ode and Pierre Mercure’s Kaleidoscope to foreign audiences.
Returning to Toronto upon finishing his contract in Winnipeg, Mr. Feldbrill became conductor of the U of T Symphony Orchestra in 1968, and was on the university’s music faculty until 1982. He was a superb music educator, also working with young musicians of the National Youth Orchestra, the Banff Centre and the Vancouver Academy of Music. In the 1980s he taught at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music for eight years.
“Victor was the best that we turned out in Canada in conducting. He fought hard for Canadian music, yet he was slightly below the radar,” in the opinion of Daniel Weinzweig, the son of John Weinzweig. “Symphonies in Canada look for conductors from abroad.”
Mr. Feldbrill developed a reputation as a sort of musical first responder when orchestras got into artistic or financial trouble. He stepped in at the TSO when the musical director Karel Ancerl died suddenly in 1973, and also revived the Hamilton Philharmonic and London (Ont.) Symphony at different times.
After the death of his beloved Zelda, he was despondent, and to lift his spirits his younger daughter, Aviva, and her husband, Herbie Koffman, were set to take him to see The Phantom of the Opera when the phone rang. “The conductor of the National Arts Centre had fallen ill, so could he fly to Ottawa right away to take his place?” Ms. Koffman recalled. “He did, and it gave him back his desire to live.”
He spent winters in Florida, where after Zelda’s death he met Mae Bernstein, a violinist from Manhattan who became his close companion for the past 24 years. Just before his heart attack, he had spoken on the phone to her – she had stayed in New York – and to his daughters.
Honours too many to list, including an appointment as an officer of the Order of Canada, rained down on him yet he remained a kind and unpretentious individual. His favourite dinner was a hot dog.
Victor Feldbrill was predeceased by his wife. He leaves his sisters, his daughters, six grandchildren; nine great-grandchildren, and his companion, Ms. Bernstein.