Obituary: Tributes pour in for Maestro Boris Brott, who was dedicated to ‘sharing his musical gifts with people from all walks of life’

Boris Brott

A conductor who performed on world stages and was the artistic director for orchestras in Montreal, Hamilton, Ont., and Los Angeles, Boris Brott is being remembered as a giant in the world of classical music who had a “love for humanity.”

Brott died on April 5 in Hamilton at the age of 78, after being struck by a vehicle in what police are investigating as a hit-and-run incident.

Bringing high quality classical music to as wide a public as possible was Brott’s goal, never more so than since he became conductor and artistic director of the Orchestre Classique de Montréal, previously the McGill Chamber Orchestra, which his parents Alexander and Lotte Brott, both acclaimed musicians, founded in 1939.

“The entire OCM family is in a state of disbelief. Boris Brott was the beating heart of the OCM, a renowned leader in the world of classical music in North America and beyond, a mentor to countless young musicians, and a very dear friend to so many. His sudden passing thus leaves a deep void in our musical community, and a profound sadness in our personal lives,” stated the board of directors of the OCM, which is in the midst of its 2021-22 season, dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the late Lotte’s birth.

“The OCM remains dedicated to the highest musical ideals of its founders, Alexander and Lotte Brott, ideals that were furthered with passion and determination by our dearest Maestro Brott. We will continue to make great music and to touch people, inspired by Boris’s standards of excellence, by his indomitable spirit, by his dedication to sharing his musical gifts with people from all walks of life, and by his love for humanity.”

Brott was associated with the McGill Chamber Orchestra, which gained a national and international reputation, since 1989, and became its artistic director upon the death of his father in 2005.  The name was changed to the OCM a few years ago to reflect the professional ensemble’s no longer being based at the university, as well as its expanding repertoire and evolving mission.

In addition to a regular subscription season, which was just getting back to in-person performances, Brott made music more accessible by holding concerts for immigrants, women’s shelters, mental health organizations, and seniors.

Inclusion and diversity were integral to its mission, and the OCM championed Canadian, Quebec, Indigenous, women and other minority musicians.

His younger brother, the cellist Denis Brott, founded the annual Montreal Chamber Music Festival.

Tributes have been pouring in for the maestro from many quarters in Canada and around the world, but it is the reminiscences of ordinary people that speak the most eloquently about the man.

Ronald Gehr was hesitant to approach Brott when he was thinking of holding a Jewish-themed classical music concert at Montreal’s Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue a few years ago, an event fitting the congregation’s 250th anniversary.

“Here I was just an amateur and he was this world-famous conductor, and yet he was very friendly. He spoke to me on the same level, as an equal, and that continued through our relationship,” said Gehr, a retired McGill University engineering professor and music lover.

Gehr organized two concerts with Brott and his OCM in 2018 and 2019, which drew full houses. “We chose the programs together; Boris would always take my suggestions into consideration. He was never controlling.”

After being forced to cancel due to the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, a third concert was scheduled for last month but they decided to postpone, possibly to September, because there is still a reluctance to attend large gatherings, even with restrictions lifted.

“I spoke to Boris only last week, and he was really excited about resuming the annual concert. When I told him I was making aliyah in a couple of months, he asked me to help arrange for the OCM to perform in Israel. I said, sure, just give me a little time to get settled,” said Gehr, who was stunned by Brott’s tragic death.

Brott’s warmth and theatrical style were appreciated by the synagogue audience. “He always spoke about the piece first, saying a few words in Yiddish. This endeared him,” Gehr said.

Montreal-born Brott conducted on stages around the world, including Carnegie Hall and Covent Garden, before royalty and even a pope, and was also a composer and violinist.

He was artistic director and conductor of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra from 1969-1990, taking it from an amateur ensemble to a professional one with a popular subscription season. Early in his career, Brott also conducted orchestras in smaller cities across Canada, and produced and hosted many radio and television programs on CBC.

He was an Officer of the Order of Canada.

Brott was later founder and artistic director of the National Academy Orchestra of Canada and Brott Music Festival, both based in Hamilton, where he lived for many years. He was the former principal conductor for youth and family programs at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, and founded the New West Symphony Orchestra in Los Angeles in the mid-1990s.

Sharon Azrieli, a famed soprano who created the Azrieli Foundation’s music competitions, said Brott was “much more than a great conductor, collaborator and jurist for the Azrieli Music Prizes since their inception in 2015. He was like an older brother to me and a welcome member of the Azrieli family.”

She described Brott as having been a teacher and mentor to her over 30 years, in her career as an opera singer and later in developing her philanthropic ideas.

“His joie de vivre was infectious. His belief in the power of music to raise people up, to be their best selves, was truly remarkable and inspiring. Throughout his long and varied career he created multiple programs for young artists in Canada and abroad and to uplift singers and instrumentalists…His sudden and tragic loss leaves an incalculable void in the music world.”

Among the most heartfelt of the tributes was one from Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger, who said, “Boris was not only a giant of the classical music world, he was also a giant for promoting and building Hamilton and his efforts over the decades helped lift our community to new heights… Boris brought to Hamilton a sense of style and sophistication like no other.”

And yet, Eisenberger stressed that Brott was “a man of the people through and through. Who can forget when he brought classical music directly to the working people of Hamilton with an orchestral performance in the Dofasco steel making plant?”

Just before his death, Brott was planning a benefit concert for Ukraine.

He said it was not surprising Brott had been voted one of the greatest Hamiltonians of all time.

Besides his brother Denis, Brott is survived by his wife Ardyth and their three children.