On December 12th, 1998 I attended an afternoon concert featuring the National Arts Centre Orchestra under the baton of Boris Brott. I had just started my ongoing job working for the NAC running the bigscreen for their Family Adventures Concerts (née the Young People’s Concert Series) and with my first gig with the orchestra occurring just a month before it was suggested that I attend a performance or two so I could better familiarize myself with the musicians.
So going to this concert was work, basically. And you thought you had it rough.
I don’t remember anything about this show in particular but I’m sure it informed my new position, in some way at least. One thing I noticed right away was how the audience was deprived of the opportunity to watch the conductor while he was working, something I was able to freely watch on the video monitors inside the control truck and a view that I thought was the most engaging on the entire stage. Since then I’ve made it a point to feature the conducting conductor onscreen as often as I can during my shows and I still do. I especially like how the chef generally gets a little extra oomph the moment he sees himself on the screen and starts waving his stick with a bit more gusto.
In addition to being the conductor for this concert, Boris Brott was the principal conductor for the first four or five seasons of the shows I worked on – and guest conductor for at least a half-dozen more years after that – so I got to spend a fair amount of time with him. He wasn’t the warmest man but I learned a lot from him; mainly to keep my mouth shut.
One of his best lessons came when I approached him at the podium as he wrapped up a rehearsal. I had a question about some inconsistency in my score. I forget exactly what the issue was but it was trivial at best, I’m sure of that. And as Maestro Brott delivered the answer to me from his little stage riser he leaned over and patted me on the head, like, “What a silly little boy you are, now off you go you little scamp!”
I was aghast. And in my early thirties. I turned and walked away with as much dignity as I could muster, which was approximately none, and made a point of asking him as few questions as possible going forward. It is certainly a moment I won’t soon forget.*
Ah, but as the years went by a small parade of conductors came through the Family Adventures Series and history eventually settled on a wonderfully talented and very respectful fellow named Alain Trudel**, who is an astoundingly good trombone player in addition to being a highly skilled and well-rounded baton-meister. And he has yet to pat me on the head, so he’s pretty solid in my books.
*I woke up this morning to the sad news that Maestro Brott has passed away suddenly, the victim of a hit-and-run in his hometown of Hamilton, Ontario. This writeup doesn’t do justice to such a great conductor so I feel compelled to add this post script.
Though I stand by my description of his personal charms – I once found myself randomly seated next to Maestro Brott on a flight to Calgary (I never-not-once dared to ever call him anything but “Maestro Brott”) and he had no idea who I was. This was after three or four seasons of working together at shows, rehearsals and small round-table script meetings – but his undeniable professionalism during rehearsals and his unflappable confidence ad-libbing on the stage are what first spring to mind when I think of the man. He heard everything that was going on (especially whispering tech people like myself) and he was innately skilled at isolating and invigorating any musical passage that wasn’t living up to what he felt was the composer’s vision. His energy and oomph on the podium could extract greatness from the musicians under his baton and when he turned to face the audience he would inevitably have an enthusiastic twinkle in his eyes that could be seen all the way to the back row. Heck, more than once I watched as Maestro Brott stood toe-to-toe with the great Eugene Levy, throwing one-liners at one another and going off and back on script with the greatest of ease.
I owe a lot to Maestro Brott; over the years he gave me several very valuable lessons, and he gave them freely. Heck, if I’m not mistaken he was the guy who hatched the concept of the Family Adventures concerts in the first place, a series that has enriched me in so many ways over the last 20+ years.
So to Maestro Boris Brott, Officer of the Order of Canada and conductor to the Pope, I offer my deep gratitude. Thank-you sir, and may you rest in peace.
**Unfortunately, just days after writing this story Alain left his position with the NACO. The split was amicable and was due specifically to his mounting success and his intensifying schedule playing with and conducting orchestras around the world. I wish him well.