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