Brott makes it back to a truly great hall

The in­trepid mae­stro re­turns to the site of so many ear­lier con­cert tri­umphs when he takes the ba­ton Satur­day

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - JEFF MA­HONEY

It is high, the ceil­ing of Boris Brott’s com­modi­ous of­fice in the his­toric red-brick build­ing, with rounded Queen Anne re­vival tur­ret, that dou­bles as his home and Brott Fes­ti­val head­quar­ters.

Uplift­ingly high. And still, as I be­gin to talk to the mae­stro, as he rubs the lamp of story, the ceil­ing feels even higher. It’s like the room is elas­tic, ex­pand­ing around Boris’s en­ergy and the en­ergy from the me­men­toes, pho­to­graphs on the wall and ob­jects on the ta­bles that wake into life for me, one by one, at var­i­ous trig­gers in the con­ver­sa­tion.

He talks of grow­ing up in Mon­treal (Boris de­buted at the Mon­treal Sym­phony Orches­tra ... at five years old, on vi­o­lin, part of a chil­dren’s mati­nee). As he rem­i­nisces, the paint­ing of MSO con­duc­tor Alexan­der Brott, Boris’s fa­ther, al­ready a fo­cal point in the room, seems to swell out of its frame.

There are mounted pho­tos of Boris with the fa­mous, near-fa­mous and should-be-fa­mous vir­tu­ally aswirl around the cir­cle of the room. And yet more are pro­duced, from the scrap­books, as the past is con­jured up. Boris with Leonard Bern­stein, Boris and orches­tra in hard hats per­form­ing in a blast fur­nace, and so on.

“That story and pic­ture (the Hamil­ton Phil­har­monic do­ing a lunchtime con­cert at Do­fasco) went all over the world. To the New York Times,” Boris, 73, tells me.

It was an in­spired idea, play­ing at the facto-

ry; a ges­ture of grat­i­tude to the steel­work­ers for their gen­er­ous do­na­tions to the build­ing of Hamil­ton Place.

Ah, Hamil­ton Place. That’s why we’re here, we must re­mem­ber, to dis­cuss. Boris, as con­duc­tor of the Hamil­ton Phil­har­monic Orches­tra when the hall was built in the early 1970s, fig­ured promi­nently in con­sul­ta­tions over how it should be built.

This Satur­day, af­ter many years ab­sence, Boris and the fes­ti­val are re­turn­ing to the site of so many of his ear­lier con­cert tri­umphs. The con­cert and the tim­ing co­in­cides with the new brand­ing of the hall and the 30th an­niver­sary of the fes­ti­val.

I’m say­ing Hamil­ton Place, but that was two names ago. It got changed, of­fi­cially, to the Ron V. Joyce Cen­tre and, as of ear­lier this year, it’s the FirstOn­tario Con­cert Hall. (You know what? It’s Hamil­ton Place, at least to me.)

“They built it for $11.5 mil­lion; you couldn’t build a park­ing lot for that now,” says Boris, “and it was ear­lier than ex­pected. I was very much in­volved.” The ar­chi­tec­tural and acous­tic con­sid­er­a­tions that went into it re­sulted in one of the most es­teemed, to this day, con­cert halls not just in the coun­try but the world.

He worked with ar­chi­tect Trevor Gar­wood Jones and leg­endary acous­ti­cian Rus­sell John­son. The acous­tics were unique at the time, tai­lored to the hall’s multi-use char­ac­ter as a venue for acous­tic and elec­tronic mu­sic, and spo­ken word.

Boris even now ex­tols the in­ge­nu­ity that went into it — the two stage adapt­abil­ity, al­low­ing switches from prosce­nium to thrust; the baf­fles and ban­ners that ab­sorb sound and could be low­ered or raised; the use of cedar and brick; the empty ar­eas be­tween walls to en­hance sound qual­ity. And more.

“The hall be­comes an in­stru­ment unto it­self,” says Boris, who opened the place in 1973 with Dvo­rak’s “New World Sym­phony” and a new piece by Galt McDermott, the com­poser of the mu­si­cal “Hair.”

Like the hall it­self, Boris has be­come, for all the highs and lows, the drama and the com­edy, a kind of dis­tinct mo­tif in this city’s his­tory, over the course of al­most 50 years.

He was a wun­derkind, so to speak, when he ar­rived, hav­ing founded his own orches­tra at 15 years old, the Phil­har­monic Youth Orches­tra of Mon­treal, and hav­ing won first at the Dim­itri Mitropou­los com­pe­ti­tion in 1968, as the re­sult of which he be­came as­sis­tant con­duc­tor to the leg­endary Leonard Bern­stein in New York City, 196869.

So when he talks of Hamil­ton Place, oops, FirstOn­tario Con­cert Hall, it is in coun­ter­point to sev­eral other sto­ries, braided to­gether al­most sym­phon­i­cally.

Be­fore his stint in New York he was con­duc­tor of the North­ern Sin­fo­nia (New­cas­tle upon Tyne) in Eng­land and con­cur­rently con­duc­tor for the tour­ing com­pany of the Royal Bal­let Covent Gar­den, dur­ing which time he was put up in an old Bri­tish manor.

“I al­ways felt a bit of a lord,” says Boris, of his youth. “I was spoiled. I bought my­self an old R type Bent­ley and drove around Eng­land in that. I drove it into Lon­don for a per­for­mance and couldn’t find a place to park. I kept pass­ing the ad­mi­ralty and there were Rolls Royces parked there so I though what have I to lose. What could go wrong?”

How cocky was he back then? He left the keys in the car. When he re­turned, hours later, you can imag­ine what had hap­pened. No you can’t.

“Not only was the car still there,” says Boris, “the gas tank was filled and it had been washed. When I think of my­self in those years, I was bump­tious and de­mand­ing. It takes time to learn hu­mil­ity.”

Now, he says, he ap­pre­ci­ates how for­tu­nate he’s been and rec­og­nizes it as a priv­i­lege, not a birthright and part of that great luck, he adds, has been the won­der­ful gift of hav­ing a place like FirstOn­tario Con­cert Hall to per­form in.

And this week he has the good for­tune to be back.

(NOTE: Pas­sion­ate Puc­cini, Sept. 16, FirstOn­tario Con­cert Hall, is added, thanks to city fund­ing.)

JOHN RENNISON, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

Boris Brott helped give Hamil­ton Place its world-class rep­u­ta­tion. He per­formed in the in­au­gu­ral con­cert in 1973.

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