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At 80, Brott’s orchestra begins new life

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Boris Brott (Annette Woloshen photo)

The McGill Chamber Orchestra (MCO), which was founded 80 years ago by Alexander Brott, is entering its anniversary season with a new name and a more secure future.

One of Canada’s oldest musical ensembles is now called the Orchestre Classique de Montréal (OCM). The name change is intended to reflect the fact that it has not been formally associated with McGill University for a long time, as well as the broader repertoire that it performs at various venues, often in collaboration with other arts organizations.

But the rebranded OCM remains closely identified with the Brott family.

Alexander Brott’s eldest son, Boris, continues as its artistic director, conducting the OCM’s 15 professional string musicians in an eight-concert 2019-20 season.

Unveiled on April 24, the season opens at the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue on Sept. 15 with the pre-High Holiday program Colours of the Diaspora. This continues a collaboration that began last fall, when the OCM performed Jewish-themed works from the golden era of classical music at the congregation’s sold-out 250th anniversary gala concert.

This year, young Israeli cellist Shulamit Sarid is the soloist for Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei. Among the selections is an excerpt from Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, titled “Goldenberg and Schmuyle,” which is inspired by paintings of two Jewish men – one rich and the other poor.

Also on the bill is the suite from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story and Felix Mendelssohn’s Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra in D minor with OCM concertmaster Marc Djokic as soloist.

Brott expressed delight at this new locale and praised the synagogue sanctuary’s outstanding acoustics.

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The OCM also announced that it is establishing a $1.1-million endowment by Sharon Azrieli, who headed its board for a decade. The endowment will enable the OCM to benefit from both federal and Quebec government programs that match private-sector charitable donations to cultural organizations.

Violinist, conductor and composer Alexander Brott, who was born in Montreal in 1915, founded the McGill String Orchestra in 1939 (later renamed the MCO), the year he began a long career with the university’s music faculty, from which he had graduated.

That’s also the year that Alexander Brott’s German-born wife-to-be, Lotte, a cellist, arrived in Montreal from Switzerland. Two years later, she was playing with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, where Alexander Brott served as concertmaster.

They married in 1943 and Lotte Brott played with the OCM and was its general manager until her death in 1998. Boris Brott, who had a well-established international career as a conductor, became the OCM’s associate conductor in 1989 and co-conductor in 2000. He was appointed as its artistic director, following his father’s death in 2005.

Between 1970 and 1990, the orchestra toured on five continents, in addition to its Montreal engagements, and was recording extensively, notably for the CBC.

After it opened in the 1960s, Place des Arts’s Théâtre Maisonneuve became the orchestra’s base.

Among the illustrious soloists that have appeared with it were Yo-Yo Ma, Isaac Stern, Yehudi Menuhin and Glenn Gould. At the same time, the orchestra championed new local artists and their works, long before the arts councils existed.

Boris Brott is proud of the fact that MCO was the first major orchestra in North America to have a female concertmaster. In 1959, his father hired the young Israeli-born Yaëla Hertz as its first violin, a position she held until 2002.

The second concert of the season, on Oct. 6 at the Maison symphonique de Montréal, will include the Congregation Shaar Hashomayim Choir and its Cantor Gideon Zelermyer, under the direction of Roi Azoulay.

Art of the Organ, which will be held in collaboration with the Canadian International Organ Festival, will feature organists Jean-Willy Kunz and Alcee Chriss playing concertos by George Frideric Handel and Francis Poulenc.

The synagogue choir will perform a selection from the High Holiday repertoire with organ and strings. Boris Brott describes it as “an example of melding various forms of great music.”

Azrieli, an accomplished operatic soprano, joins pianist Matt Herskowitz for the March 8 concert All That Jazz at Oscar Peterson Hall. They will perform jazz and Broadway favourites by Kurt Weill, George Gershwin, Stephen Sondheim and others.

Also scheduled is Montreal composer Airat Ichmouratov’s One Day of an Almost Ordinary Life for klezmer clarinet and string orchestra.

The elder Brott will be remembered at the two final concerts in May and June. The former, Beethoven & Brott, at Salle Bourgie, sees Italian pianist Giuseppe Guarrera join the OCM to play music by the two composers, including Alexander Brott’s Astral Visions.

The closing concert, at the Maison symphonique, Ode to Joy, will feature over 200 performers, including guest soloists and choirs. In addition to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, two of Alexander Brott’s works that were inspired by Beethoven are on the program: Fidelio and Paraphrase in Polyphony.

“My parents founded this orchestra with the highest musical standard, as well as the desire to grow and educate audiences, and to champion Canadian music and artists,” said Boris Brott. “It continues to be a privilege to carry on the legacy of this wonderful ensemble of musicians and we look forward to this new era as the OCM.”

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