Under the Maestros Hand: A Violinists Dream
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At first, the couple rented the second floor. They raised their three children there.
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Rows of bookcases are crammed with music scores. The walls feature framed awards and photos of Brott with immediately recognizable friends such as Harry Belafonte, Ella Fitzgerald, and Princess Margaret. Boris Brott was born in Montreal in , the elder son of two brilliant classical musicians.
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His brother, Denis, was born in ; a former cellist with the much-admired Orford String Quartet, he is currently a music teacher and is the founding director of the Montreal Chamber Music Festival. Early days were modest. He played a Vivaldi concerto at a youth concert. I played baseball and all the things with the other kids. But I was supremely untalented.
I had two left feet! I was really bad. So I realized that music was what I was good at and there was no point in pursuing something where I was clearly not gifted. How do you see your future? I just took a year off school.
Back at home, the teenager guest-conducted a youth concert with the Montreal Symphony. He graduated from West Hill High School at 17, having attended part-time; the rest of his time during those days, he completed a degree in music at McGill University. His inspiring time with Leonard Bernstein also included work back in Canada, developing the music program at Lakehead University and the Lakehead now Thunder Bay Symphony. Then came an offer from Hamilton.
It began with this dream that I had when I came—not hiring individuals, but rather hiring already formed ensembles, quartets, and quintets. It started with a first-class international ensemble: the Czech String Quartet, who arrived in the middle of August with fur coats, expecting a country in which there were a lot of people in igloos. Graham Rockingham describes a poster from proclaiming: boris brott: music power. And we built that orchestra to a full professional ensemble. We had a week season.
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We were filling Hamilton Place for all our subscriptions. We had pops concerts. We sent the instrumental groups into the schools—strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion—then finally the whole orchestra. It was very much a thriving enterprise. Not of my own accord. The board had, or I had, a different vision for what this should be or could be. He was exhilarated rather than exhausted by the Strauss and Wagner. What a monster! Can you remember the first time you saw that on the stand in front of you? As I changed back to street clothes, I caught sight of the peculiar knob on the wall that controlled the volume of the stage monitors.
It turned from 0 to The monitors carried messages from the personnel office in addition to music. There were of course the customary five-minute warnings before services and near the ends of breaks. Then there were the occasional surprises, such as the addition of overtime. On this subject, Chicago had the most extraordinary rules. But that was only the most lucrative of the overtimes. There were also normal overtime, unscheduled overtime, and penultimate overtime.
Like a nuclear weapon, it existed mainly as a deterrent. Should a conductor deploy the extraordinary option and incur its obscene costs, he would surely be blacklisted from future engagement with the orchestra. It was mutually assured destruction, in contract form.
The next five? Unfortunately for the players, the progression stopped there rather than continuing logarithmically until each musician could afford to hire his own conductor with acceptable time management skills! Any time a conductor had bungled things so badly as to run out of time before running out of music, we would begin shooting glances at each other: will it happen? The conductor in this story is impossible for me to forget, but because of his heroic act I will withhold his name.
Therefore it was no surprise when the conductor, as was his habit, ran out of time before rehearsing it. But it was not to be.
Now, since overtime charges are sometimes deducted from those fees, my colleagues came up with an intriguing scenario: the conductor, ashamed of his own incompetence and realizing the superiority of the musicians surrounding him, had selflessly engineered a socialist redistribution of wealth. It was beautifully designed. But after that concert, the revolution was over. We the workers never controlled the means of production, as evidenced by all the Elliott Carter works we played in the ensuing seasons. Therefore the return to Orchestra Hall and the downtown season was most welcome: a ten-minute commute rather than an hour, actual practice rooms, and just one program a week.
I was working on my website, natesviolin. Not much has changed, in the end. A picture from my apartment that season sums things up nicely. In the background, you can see the enormous boxes that used to come with video and DVD-mastering software. If I had to pick one moment from that first season in Chicago that will live forever in my memory, it would certainly be the first sounds I ever heard from Pinchas Zukerman. Barenboim was on the podium, and the two of them were both dressed in soccer apparel.
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Just as it was during my very first week, Elgar was on the program: the magnificent violin concerto, which puts unusual demands on the orchestra. The opening tutti is full-blooded and symphonic, and I had my hands full following its twists and turns. Zukerman, at the peak of his powers and playing a gorgeous Guarneri del Gesu, was like a lion at ease. He roared without giving the slightest impression of effort. I stared open-mouthed, neglecting to come in with the section several bars later. At that moment, I knew that as long as the Chicago Symphony was the place to hear violin playing on that level, Chicago was the place for me.
The collective confidence of Barenboim and Zukerman can hardly be described: for the two of them, rehearsal was a distraction that could be dispensed with as long as the entire stage was on their wavelength. I needed to know how two artists could be so comfortable not only in their own performances, but in their collaboration, night after night. I looked up from my stand as often as I could get away from the notes. As it was the second half of the concert, and there was a substantial stage change during the intermission, we had to stay off stage until all was set under the lights.
Once it was safe to take our seats, we began filing onto stage. Just before I passed through the narrow door, I tripped and nearly fell flat on my face and, needless to say, the Strad. It was not a simple loss of coordination: something, or someone, had tripped me! I looked back, and there against the wall, mostly concealed in shadow, was Barenboim. His mischievous grin removed all doubt as to who had been the culprit.