A Conversation with Boris Brott

April 27, 2015.

In our ongoing series, Maestro Boris Brott answers questions about Jewish music and the importance of philanthropy in the orchestral world

Maestro Brott is one of the most internationally recognized Canadian conductors, and enjoys an international career as guest conductor, educator, motivational speaker and cultural ambassador. He is Conductor and Artistic Director of the McGill Chamber Orchestra in Montreal, the National Academy Orchestra of Canada, and Principal Guest Conductor of the Petruzzelli Theatre in Bari Italy He is also Artistic Director of the Brott Musical Festivals in Ontario and Founding Music Director of the New West Symphony in Los Angeles California. Boris Brott served as Assistant Conductor to the New York Philharmonic under the late Leonard Bernstein, was Music Director and Conductor for the Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, Chief Conductor of the BBC National Symphony of Wales, and Music Director of the Northern Sinfonia of England. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada, Member of the Order of Ontario and Grand Officier of the Ordre National du Quebec.


Boris, how do you define “Jewish Music”?

It’s complicated! There are so many influences involved. The word “Jewish” can describe religion, culture and history. Jews have inhabited and made significant contributions to so many countries, so many nationalities.

I like the most inclusive of possible interpretations. Jewish Music illuminates Jewish culture, whether it is the Old Testament – or of the cultures that Jews have migrated to. So, for example, a work that is descriptive of the life of Armenian Jews would be equally valid as one dealing with Ethiopian Jews or Israelis or Americans.

A lot of the literature of what we call “Classical” music has been Christian-based. Bach, Beethoven, Handel, Verdi, Vivaldi and Tchaikovsky and so on – were all Christian composers. The church embraced this music as part of their worship. These composers also wrote music that was secular – influenced by the folk music of their countries of origin. There are comparatively few Jewish composers of instrumental Classical music and very little classical music that could be described as Jewish in nature. The Azrieli Music Project is an opportunity to redress that balance, if you will.

Are there works of Jewish music that have particularly resonated with you?

Well yes, though they are not necessarily “Jewish” music in the sense that they “sound” Jewish. For example Mahler, who was great composer, was Jewish but converted to Christianity.  I love Mahler’s music. Mendelssohn was also certainly of Jewish roots – although he was baptised at birth he was a descendant of the Jewish Philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. I find “Jewishness” in much of his music. Then there is my mentor Leonard Bernstein. The greater part of Bernstein’s output was sparked by the interaction of his American conditioning and his Jewish heritage. More fascinating is how some of his non-Jewish works are flavored with “Hebraisms,” including his musical comedy On the Town. Two songs from that show – “Ya Got Me” and “Some Other Time” – are redolent of an Ashkenazi prayer mode known as adonai malakh. Other examples are to be found in the finale of his Symphony no. 2, The Age of Anxiety, and in Mass, his theater piece based on the Roman Church rite, imbued with hidden Jewish symbolism. Then there are many of the works by Ernst Bloch Schelomo and Sacred Service.

You can also look at works not written by Jews. For example, the opera Samson and Delilah – although there is some question if Saint-Saëns had Jewish roots or not.  William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast is an example of a work by a non-Jew but on an [Old Testament] biblical theme. Max Bruch’s Kol Nidre. Most Jews as well as non-Jews think of him as being Jewish because of this work.

Why do you feel that it is important to encourage the creation of orchestral music in particular?

The symphony orchestra is the most brilliant vehicle for the composing and performing of “pure” music. It is totally international as a language and has the capacity to bring all humanity together.

It is a live art form that is constantly evolving, but one that needs to be fed by new repertoire that has a certain attraction or quality that places it in the interest of people, of the average audience-goer.  I think that attaching it to a “Jewish” theme helps to give it that impetus.

There is an almost disproportionate number of people of Jewish faith who feel that this cultural amenity – the “classical” orchestra – and expression is important and subsidize it and protect it. I think that the Azrieli Foundation is doing something absolutely wonderful by supporting this field of music, particularly at a time when many philanthropic foundations are looking elsewhere.

 As a Juror for the Azrieli Commissioning Competition and Azrieli Music Prize, what are you looking for?

I’m looking for music that speaks to me – that will move me. I’m looking for music that will also capture the audience’s attention – an audience that most often has little musical “information.” Music, more than anything in life, connects our cerebral cortex to our soul.  You don’t have to “understand” it to “get it”.  Added to that is the Azrieli Prize’s emphasis on works of a Jewish nature. I am looking for a work that makes me proud of my heritage.

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