Conductor Boris Brott has been appointed to the 2006 Order of Ontario by the Honourable James K. Bartleman, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. Brott is Music Director of the National Academy Orchestra of Canada in Hamilton, the McGill Chamber Orchestra in Montreal, the New West Symphony in Los Angeles and is Principal Youth and Family Conductor at the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa.
After rehearsal in a downtown church last Friday night, Boris Brott and his vivacious wife Ardeth Webster Brott spent over an hour in a local coffee shop explaining why this award is so special.
Brott is charming and most amiable, dressed impeccably in a dark suit, with a jaunty red bow tie, a red hankie peeking out from his breast pocket, blue enamel cufflinks setting off a crisp white shirt.
Once we're seated with our hot drinks in the Jackson Square Tim Horton's, Brott pours out his feelings on why, despite a long list of achievements, receiving the Order of Ontario “is the most significant honour for me that I've had in my life, more so than the Order of Canada, more so than anything”.
“Most of my adult life has been spent in Ontario,” he explains, giving a quick rundown of 44 years working in this province. A Montreal native, he's a great supporter and promoter of both his adopted province of Ontario and his adopted hometown of Hamilton.
His first appointment in Ontario was at the age of 18, as assistant conductor of the Toronto Symphony, where he established their Youth and Outreach Program. He was invited to form the music department at Lakehead University and also to professionalize the Lakehead Symphony.
After that, he came to Hamilton, “where the second language is Italian, not French, which is very different for me than Montreal.” He took over the Kitchener-Waterloo Orchestra, getting them also professionalized, and finding them a new conductor.
During that time he developed a relationship with both the Toronto Symphony, for about fifteen years, and following that, the National Arts Centre Orchestra.
“And then of course, through this all, Hamilton and the Philharmonic, which had a really incredible rise over a period of some twenty-three years. It came from being an amateur orchestra to a 42-week season, tripling concerts. We said, and it was true, that we had more subscribers than the Hamilton Tiger Cats – in a friendly competitive way!”
“And then - ,” he pauses, “I shouldn't say 'and then', because it's certainly highly significant and it's the reason I think why (he's still here), despite the fact of leaving the Hamilton Philharmonic, which was one of the most unpleasant experiences of my life - I married Ardeth, which has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. She is the main reason why we stayed. She and a house.”
“And family,” adds Ardeth, whose family heritage is related to Webster's Falls.
“But equally happy from our perspective was that we then decided to strike out, to expand what we had done for the last couple of years on our own, which was the start of the Boris Brott Festival, which gave birth to something called the National Academy Orchestra which is a mentor apprentice training program.
“We select 50 young musicians from around the world every year who are finished their university training in music, and who desire to be professional orchestral and chamber musicians. We bring them together with mentors, professionals from across the country, who play in the orchestra. They have a huge repertoire that they go by in about 60 concerts a season.”
They had been rehearsing the wrap-up to the winter festival, Handel's Messiah, presented at two churches last weekend. The Sunday night performance, at St. Christopher's Anglican Church in Burlington, was a sublimely uplifting combination of orchestra, chorus and soloists in an acoustically astounding setting, that included rousing audience participation for the Hallelujah! chorus.
“We've spawned over 900 young players - now not-so-young because it will be our twentieth season next year - actively earning a living as musicians all over the world, and it's wonderful to run into them in different places, because of course it's impossible for Canada to absorb all those musicians, yet we're so wonderful at producing them. We produce more musicians per capita probably than most other places.”
As well as his guest conducting, Brott also does a fair amount of guest speaking. He and his wife are in the Tim Horton's with me until 10:00 pm, despite the fact that he had to be up at the crack of dawn to catch a flight to Chicago, where he was giving a motivational speech to a real estate conglomerate.
“Conductors tend to be peripatetic. It's very hard on marriages, to be sure. I don't know many conductors who stay married for very long.”
Ardeth does travel occasionally with her husband, especially if the destination is appealing but with a law practise of her own, plus three children, she mostly holds down the fort at home when he's on the road.
She was definitely planning to be there last night as Brott received the Order of Ontario at Queen's Park. Afterwards, they and some friends and colleagues had booked rooms at the King Edward, where they could party after the ceremony.
Brott is the only Hamiltonian among the 29 Order of Ontario recipients and the only performing artist. The 62 year-old Maestro is being recognized “for transforming the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra into one of world class stature during the 1970s and 80s. He developed eight orchestras in Canada and five in Ontario. His accomplishments in the fields of youth education and innovative, multimedia approaches to presenting classical music were also cited by nominators.”
Brott confesses, “I can't hide the fact that it has been a certain disappointment to live in this city and see all that work (with the Hamilton Philharmonic) go down the drain, and not feel a sense of closure. I would hope that this will serve to bring some healing to the rifts that, regrettably, seem to exist.
“Having the success of the festival and having the audiences that we have, and building our own niche here, has been a wonderful way for us to remain active, to remain living in this city we love to live in, and we do enjoy living in Hamilton.”
He's eager to outline how he'd like to see Hamilton improve, though. “We have no transportation system, at all, that would allow people from Toronto, for example, to go to a football game, or to hear a concert, or go to an event at Copps Coliseum, get on a train and go back, to Oakville lets say. Everything has to be done by car. We've got about as close to gridlock, I think, as you can get without stopping completely!”
“I think Hamilton is on the cusp of a renaissance, and if everyone is smart enough to look at it and see it, we have the most wonderful performance facilities here, we have wonderful sports facilities, we have excellent education facilities, the amenities of living are second to none.”
He cites world class shops like Denninger's and Millie's. “People from around the whole area beat a path to our door, and far from draining our resources, if we had a proper transportation system, like London or Paris or New York, or any city that you can think of that's this size - except for Los Angeles, where there is no transportation system, and where there is grid-lock! - with that proper transportation there'd be no stopping us. It's the single thing that we need to do here.”
Ardeth reminds Boris that he was quite emotional when he received word that he had been awarded the Order of Ontario. “Because this is my home!” he replies passionately. Quoting a French proverb that translates to 'no-one is a prophet in their own home', he continues, “Hamilton has become my hometown, I wasn't born here but this is the home of my family.”
“It's my understanding that the award is largely for the work I've done here more than anywhere else, and so that's pretty significant. It's the recognition from my fellow peers that there's a value to what was created, and is still being created.
“It's not just a recognition of me,” he continues, “but of Ardeth, and of my staff, all the wonderful people I have working with me.”
The other thing that really turns him on is kids. “I know how important the exposure to music is, to develop the intellect and to develop creative powers.” The Boris Brott Festival also features a large outreach program to school-age children.
On our way back to our cars, we're approached on the street by a kid begging for food money. Brott immediately digs deep for some cash, and advises the grateful young man that the Tim's in the mall is a handy place for a meal. With all his world travelling, his artistic genius and his cosmopolitan bonhomie, Boris Brott is still very much a man of the people. Congratulations on your well-deserved award, Mr. Brott.