CONDUCTING 30 YEARS OF MUSIC IN HAMILTON: AN INTERVIEW WITH BORIS BROTT

(This is the second in a series of blog posts by the Brott Music Festival in celebration of the Festival’s 30th anniversary this year which kicks off in June.)

Interview conducted by BMF interns Donna-Marie Ieluzzi & Aaron Hols-Vanhumbeck

Music has a profound and unparalleled ability to bring people together; the way it makes us feel and the peace it brings within us is something no other force is capable of. This year the Brott Music Festival celebrates its 30th season and we got to sit down and reminisce with the man behind the music, Boris Brott.

If you ever get a chance to speak with Boris about the festival, you’ll see his face just light up. 30 years and 30 summers have seemed to flown on by but the passion and joy for sharing the art of performance and musical excellence remains the same. This is more than just a music festival, it’s a musical experience-one we are excited to discuss with you through Boris’ perspective. From 1987 to 2017, here is 30 years of music from the man who started it all.

Why did you start the Brott Music Festival and what was your inspiration?

Boris: “My wife and I had been organizing Ontario Place Pops, a series of programs at Ontario Place. Using the Hamilton Philharmonic [Orchestra]. I was asked by then mayor, Robert Morrow, to do something to liven the city during a couple of visits by the Governor General and a member of the Royal Family…We did and it was successful, and we thought, ‘why don’t we augment that and do more in the summer,’ because there was nothing going on.”

  • The first concert series was a small 11-day festival from July 19 to July 30th. It featured a mix of several artists such as Glenn Gould, Karen Kain, William Hutt and several others. The series was held at Hamilton Place, Gage Park, Redeemer College and the Art Gallery of Hamilton. 

Did you see the Brott Music Festival lasting 30 years when you first started?

Boris: “I didn’t see myself lasting 30 years here [chuckles]. I had a goal to develop an orchestra using chamber musicians. At that point, we didn’t know what we were doing with any longevity. The catalyst was the idea of the National Academy Orchestra. I put together a conglomeration of experienced and young musicians which worked well. There was nothing available for retraining in the arts in Hamilton, so I called up Barbara McDougall (MP) and got an appointment. I said to look up how much [was spent] on unemployment for musicians. She came back and said ‘you’re right, we want to help you.’ She gave money from a discretionary fund to train professional musicians the practical aspects of the profession. This solidified the festival.”

  • The National Academy Orchestra is Canada’s only professional training orchestra. 

You talked about your vision when you came up with the Festival. Has it gone the way you had hoped 30 years later?

Boris: “Inevitably there are moments of concern; it is not one steady process. We do not program for what we don’t have the money for; we must have the resources. The financial burden is on our shoulder, not on a board of directors [and] we like it that way. Our festival this year is 9 weeks. [Ideally,] I want it to be 12 months, all year round. We have to be realistic and do what we can afford.”

Whenever someone sees an orchestra, they think classical music or opera. How has the Brott Music Festival challenged these preconceptions?

Boris: “We’ve challenged this by presenting odd combinations of music and composers and given an opportunity for musicians to interact with other art forms, by inventing crazy ideas that force a collaboration of people that don’t normally work together. Whether it be: poets, cartoonists, beatboxers, rock musicians, etc., it opens the door that anything is possible and in that sense, you can create something new.”

When the Festival started, it was 11 days and this year, it’s lasting 9 weeks. How did that happen?

Boris: “It happened to some extent because of the National Academy Orchestra. There had to be performances and there had to be so many concerts for these young people to get real experience in the world. That drove the festival into existence; then that was met with a public that was willing to come and listen.”

What is your favourite part of the Festival and what do you look forward to most?

Boris: “I look forward to conducting, to making music, to working with young people. It’s the act of creating great music that I love. I always said that I was fortunate in my life not to really have to work a day in my life. I’ve enjoyed [and] I’ve played most of my life. My great joy is bringing this group of young people in and welding them together into a performing ensemble, a unit and watching them flourish, develop and love what they do. […] My favourite part is working with the musicians. Seeing the smiles, the light and the joy they have in their music making and certainly, [another] favourite part is transmitting that joy to an audience, watching the audience respond in a joyous way. The most joy is from the children’s concerts and to watch kids come in where you know that [most] of them ask ‘why are we here?’, then, watching them go out and be really excited.

What does it mean to you to not only play, but be a mentor?

Boris: “I got involved as a very young person with many great mentors from Wilfrid Pelletier, who was a great leader in education and was a great mentor to me. [Another was] Igor Markevitch, who brought me to Mexico City to study music while taking a year off from school, and Leonard Bernstein, who was more responsible for the re-encouragement of the mentorship part of my life. It’s part of my DNA to enjoy sharing knowledge and mentoring young musicians. My mentors who took me on would take me all over the world to gain knowledge.”

  • Boris values being a teacher just as much as he values being a player and that’s what makes the festival so special. The idea of mentorship and education has been embedded in his approach to music from a very young age. He grew up around individuals who taught him not only the art of music but more importantly, the art of teaching.

For the Festival, what would you say is your favourite place to perform?

Boris: “I would have to say Hamilton Place. It was built as an orchestral concert hall. I think we are so lucky to have Mohawk, how many schools have a concert hall like that? It has an amazing facility. The other facility that has wonderful acoustics and a beautiful setting is St. Thomas Church in Waterdown [which] has a calm feeling about it.”

Do you get nervous before a performance?

Boris: “Always. Always. […] It’s more anticipation than nerves. It’s not a fear of performing, but it is an anticipation of doing the very best you can; it’s your inner-energy concentrating on what you are about to do. On the odd occasion, I don’t feel anything and then I get worried. […] If you don’t have it, it changes your dynamic of concentration. […] My parents got me to play for an audience of teddy bears when I was a kid and I had to play concerts from the time I can remember once a week. […] I don’t fear audiences from that perspective. I’m not afraid of them; it’s more a fear of myself and how I’m going to do, if I’m doing a piece from memory, a lengthy piece [and] assembling all of that in [my] head and saying ‘okay, now’s the moment.”

Do you have any pre-show rituals?

Boris: “My mentor Leonard Bernstein had a pair of cufflinks that he wore at every concert and he would always kiss them before he went out on stage. I can’t say that I have any ritual like that [and] I sort of wish I did. I don’t know why that is. I just go out there and do it. The pre-concert nerves that we talked about is something that I actually like. You have standards for yourself and you have to achieve them. [pause] We should do open rehearsals [so] people can see how the music has changed from the rehearsal to the opening.”

What do you think is the most important moment in the festival?

Boris: “There are so many wonderful, amazing and incredible moments, it’s like choosing between your children. There are wonderful moments for every performance. […] Creating new music is a significant milestone. We did Mahler’s 8th symphony which is a performance of a thousand people on stage. [It] is a highpoint of the festival for me, as well as the children’s concerts this year where we showed a combination of rock and heavy metal. The past is gone and I tend to look forward instead of backwards.”

What impact do you hope the festival makes on attendees and on the City of Hamilton?

Boris: “Well, first I’d like to talk about these people that are apprentices. We have had over 1800 young people who have gone off into really interesting careers and have done a variety of interesting tasks inspired by what we have helped them with here.  That’s the major contribution from my perspective. Not to mention the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of children that have seen the education concerts that I have been able to dream up over 50 years of career. That’s a huge thing. I think from a Hamilton standpoint, our programming is diverse […]. We continue to open our window into the world of current popular music through orchestrations of rock and pop musicians and folk musicians. We are constantly letting the light shine in musically into this community in original ways and I think the community responds to us.”

What are your thoughts and impressions on the upcoming thirtieth season?

Boris: “To me it’s a season like any other season. I think it’s marvelous that Hamilton has sustained us. I’m grateful for the audiences. I’m grateful for the marvelous group of people we have assembled that make this function.”

Well, there you have it. Boris has an enthusiasm and a determination to make things happen. He wanted to help young musicians gain real world experience so he created an orchestra where they could work and learn from accomplished industry professionals. Then he used that same orchestra to sustain a festival for three decades.

The goal of the Festival at large is to touch the lives of those who attend as much as those who play. While it is meant to entertain, it is also meant for people to be one with themselves through the music as it accompanies the memories and experiences we hold and go through as human beings. Boris advocates that “music is about connecting with one’s inner-self; it connects with people on a personal level and