MCO to perform classical concert with Jewish theme

Boris Brott

Montrealers will soon have a rare opportunity to hear Jewish-themed music from the golden age of classical music in a synagogue sanctuary. In celebration of its 250th anniversary, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue will host the McGill Chamber Orchestra (MCO), under the baton of its artistic director Boris Brott, on Sept. 2.

The MCO will be joined by two renowned soloists: cellist Matt Haimovitz and clarinetist Mark Simons.

The program has been thoughtfully designed, in collaboration with synagogue member Ronald Gehr, to provide variety and be appropriate for the coming High Holiday season.

The evening opens with Sergei Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes, followed by Ernest Bloch’s Shelomo, the second movement of Joseph Hadyn’s Symphony No. 38, Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei and, while not quite classical, Jerry Bock’s Fiddler on the Roof. The Haydn piece was chosen because it was composed the year the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, Canada’s first Jewish congregation, was founded.

A South African-born McGill University civil engineering professor, Gehr is a classical music lover who plays the viola “at a very amateur level.”

While there are many cantorial and choir concerts, he says that in his 38 years in Montreal, the number of truly classical performances held in synagogues have been few.

The notable exception was the staging of Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, to celebrate its 170th anniversary last year. (Elijah premiered the year the Shaar opened.)

Gehr was frankly envious. “They are much younger than us,” he thought to himself. “Surely we can do something like that.”

Fortunately, the MCO was immediately receptive and it already had several possible selections in its repertoire.

“This is the first time such a program is being held in our beautiful – visually and acoustically – sanctuary, with a world-class orchestra, conductor and soloists,” says Gehr.

Brott agrees the space is wonderful. “Reverberant yet clear,” he says. “Its seating in the round, with audience surrounding the musicians, should provide an unusual intimacy in relating musicians to those listening.”

The audience can expect to hear works of “consummate drama and pathos, pinnacles of romantic music with a ‘Yiddishe tam,’ as my bubbe used to describe it in the mama loshen, meaning that the music had Jewish sentiment or flavour or feeling,” says Brott.

(He notes that his grandparents spoke to him in Yiddish, while his parents addressed him in French. His parents were MCO founders Alexander and Lotte Brott. They ran the MCO from 1939 to 1998, he its artistic director and she its cellist and general manager.)

While Bruch was not Jewish, Brott says the German composer’s Kol Nidrei uses the “baritone voice” of the cello “to intone the traditional prayer, whose melody reduces us to tears” every Yom Kippur.

Shelomo – which was composed by Bloch, who was Jewish – is, according to Brott, “a highly dramatic tone poem with the cello as protagonist, and you could not ask for a better protagonist than internationally renowned cellist Matt Haimovitz,” a McGill faculty member who tours internationally.

Hadyn’s work may not have a Jewish theme, but his inclusion is a recognition that he is “arguably the father of the symphony,” and a nod to the great music of his era, says Brott.

The audience should be uplifted by the familiar melodies of Fiddler on the Roof, which Brott describes as “the quintessential Yiddish expression, known to every Jew and loved by them almost as anthems.”


Simons, who also teaches at McGill, tours widely and is an expert in the early clarinet.

Why did so many of the towering classical composers find inspiration in Jewish themes? Brott has several explanations.

“Jewish themes provided the drama of victory over oppression. The struggle of Jews in the Diaspora served as an inspiration for composers, particularly when they wanted to express deep feelings in their music,” he says.

The Hebrew Bible, known as the Old Testament to Christians, was also foundational to creativity at the time and the church was a principal sponsor of classical music, he adds.

“It is natural that composers of all faiths would turn to that cornerstone of tradition that unites us all,” says Brott.

And that includes the pre-eminent composers with Jewish ancestry of that “golden age” – Felix Mendelssohn and Gustav Mahler.

“Despite their conversion to Christianity, they could not escape their Jewish roots when it came to the language of their musical expression,” Brott adds.

The concert, which begins at 7:30 p.m., is sponsored by Irwin Miller, in honour of his late parents, Joe and Bess Miller. Joe Miller was president of the Chevra Shaas synagogue, a constituent congregation of the Spanish and Portuguese, for about 40 years, notes Gehr.


Tickets range in price from $54 to $180, with partial tax receipts issued at the higher end. They may be purchased online at