The Muse in Music - Boris Brott on New Music, Bernstein, and Stravinsky
By Dan Perttu
For this blog post, I am delighted to interview conductor Boris Brott.
Maestro Brott is one of the most internationally recognized Canadian conductors, holding major posts as Music Director and Principal Guest Conductor in Canada, Europe and the United States. He enjoys an international career as guest conductor, educator, motivational speaker and cultural ambassador.
Currently, Mr. Brott is Founding Music Director and Laureate Conductor of the New West Symphony, California, Artistic Director of the McGill Chamber Orchestra, Montreal and Principal Guest Conductor of the Teatro Petruzzelli in Bari Italy. Maestro Brott is Artistic Director of Brott Music Festivals, which was established in 1987, as Ontario’s principal classical music festival and is home to the National Academy Orchestra of Canada, Canada’s unique professional training orchestra. Internationally, Mr. Brott has served as Assistant Conductor to the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein, and as Music Director and Conductor for the Royal Ballet, Covent Garden (two years), and Northern Sinfonia (five years), and the BBC Welsh Symphony (seven years). In addition, Mr. Brott’s extensive guest-conducting appearances have been in Mexico, the United States, South America, Central America, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Scandinavia, Japan, Korea, Israel, the Netherlands.
Dan: My first question is what music inspires you as a conductor? Particularly, what contemporary music inspires you?
Boris: Well, I like a lot of contemporary music of various kinds. I really believe that a conductor has a responsibility to perform music of our own time. I must say I have a penchant, if you will, for dramatic works. They are colorful and use the orchestra and instruments to their maximum advantage with extra musical or instrumental techniques. From my perspective, it is the color in the language that interests me and inspires me. The music can be of a non-descriptive nature. That is, it is not necessarily program music. But having a program doesn’t hurt either.
Dan: When you talk about “color,” are you talking about orchestration or timbre?
Boris: That, and the color of the music on its own. Piano music has color, too. But I must confess that orchestrated music interests me more.
Boris: And these days, I’m doing a lot of opera. The use of the human voice in an effective way is also fascinating to me. Finally, I also am interested in music that involves different cultures. We were always interested in diverse music in Canada because we’ve always prided ourselves in being a multicultural society. I think it has worked, probably best, in Canada than all of the other places I can think of. The political framework of this country has encouraged cultures beyond white, European ones in our own midst. Now there’s a tremendous explosion of interest in music of First Nations. I find the music fascinating, and I program and commission it.
Dan: That sounds like a wonderful perspective. I know many people in the United States share your values, yet it’s not always apparent to the outside world that we do. However, I really like learning more about your Canadian perspectives.
Boris: I have spent time in the United States, so I am well aware of the plethora of the interesting and effective music being written. There is so much music being written today that composers have a great desire to voice their expression in writing, and in writing for orchestra particularly.
Dan: It’s wonderful on the one hand, but there’s so much new music. How do you sort
through it? How does the “good stuff rise to the top,” so to speak?
Boris: That’s often tricky and difficult because reading a score is a laborious process. It’s much more difficult than reading a novel. To hear what is on a printed page is a process. You can’t just peruse it; it’s not fair to it to peruse it. And often, the electronic means of realizing the score, albeit better than nothing, doesn’t allow you to hear the humanity in the sound, if you will. MIDI sampling is still rudimentary by comparison. Some composers are willing to go to that trouble, and quite honestly, I appreciate it because it’s a great shortcut for me in reading a great number of compositions. Otherwise, I’d be influenced only by people I know, or people I know of, as opposed to new people I’ve never heard of.
Dan: Of course! This actually brings me to my next question. Do you have preferences to specific aesthetic orientations or styles? What does that imply for your programming? It sounds like your programming is very diverse, but I am curious to follow up a little bit on that.
Boris: I was involved in so many orchestras where a lot of contemporary music was performed. I have a very eclectic palate, if you will. I feel like, in a way, a conductor is like an actor. We put on a cloak, and that cloak is the composition we are performing. And, you enter into the spirit of that composition as much as possible. From my perspective, it's a joy to do that, to discover new aesthetics. I would hesitate to choose a particular aesthetic, or say I really like this type of music. I know I don’t personally like some music. To be honest, I feel the Second Viennese School was a big mistake. It really didn’t add anything. On the contrary, it took a lot away. On the other hand, this you might find strange: if I go back to some of the scores of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, I do feel real tension and release. I also feel a real diatonicism, even though it’s not really diatonic. There’s a real sense of harmony within it. It's not really foreign. After all, what I think music is about is creating a tension and resolution.
Dan: That’s very interesting. I agree with some of your thoughts on aesthetics as well. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve picked up on some tension and release in some serialist music, but I can’t say I always listen to it by my fireside.
Boris: No! The problem is this language has not yet found a real audience of any number of people. And one, as a conductor, is always balancing one’s program against the need to have people listen to it. You need to sell tickets for people to come. I don’t really care if they buy tickets or not, but I want them to come. It doesn’t make sense to perform music in a hall for very few people. I try to program in a way and find auditorium sizes appropriate for the amount of interest I think will generate. If, for example, I’m going to do a concert where even some of the music is going to be very difficult for a “normal audience” to listen to, I will go to a smaller hall.
Dan: That’s understandable.
Boris: I want it to be filled. To play to 100 people in a 2,000-person auditorium is soul destroying for anybody, including the people who came there. Dan: Oh, yes. At the college where I work, we always worry about these issues too. Boris: And I think you know the other part of the issue. As a music director of an organization, you are constantly called in to bring in audiences and justify your programming based on the audiences it obtains. For many years, I was associated with broadcasting orchestras. I was the Director of CBC Winnipeg Orchestra and Music Director of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Now, of course, the rules there are very different. And the masters you were serving had very different gains and objectives. And in many ways, it was very refreshing. They wanted you to take chances. They wanted you to play new music. They wanted to hear old music that hasn’t been heard before. It was an interest outside of attracting an audience.
Boris: And that was very liberating for me. I could do all kinds of things. In fact, I was encouraged to bring in new thoughts, ideas, and aesthetics. Now, when you’re running an orchestra that is balancing a budget, it’s a different story.
Dan: Of course. Along these lines, I was very curious to fold in your international perspectives on some of these things. I understand you’ve conducted in Italy as well, right?
Boris: Yes I have. Quite a lot.
Dan: As far as programming is concerned, are audiences’ interests in music different in Canada as compared to America or Italy?
Boris: Well, I can’t give you much perspective on that. Except, I was really shocked when I started doing concerts for young people in Italy. In the birthplace of Western music, if one could say that, there was so little information being given to school children. And they absolutely had no idea of any “art” music. They knew pop music, and to some extent, Italian film music. But they had no knowledge of art music at all. From the standpoint of audiences, I think it’s very similar. There is a smaller group of people who are interested in new art music. I would say, in the major sense, I’ve had the pleasure of performing it and getting to know there is a significant interest. I think those pockets exist almost everywhere in the world -- certainly every country I’ve been in. I couldn’t really contrast this any one way or another. I don’t find there’s a greater or lesser interest to this type of music across Europe. Is it a large audience? No, it’s not. But then again, was it ever intended for a large audience? Even if you go back historically to Baroque music, it was intended for a very small percentage of the overall public. It was not a mass media by any means, and it still isn’t.
Dan: I’m not entirely surprised by this.
Boris: Now, it must be said that what I’ve been doing in Italy is mostly opera, and what I’ve been asked to do is more in the realm of 19th-century Italian opera. The Italians are very loyal to their own and very interested in their own. They’re not as much interested in anything else. Certainly in the opera houses. They’re quite happy to hear Rossini, Vivaldi, and all of the Italian composers. Certainly the audience is less interested even in German or French music for that matter.
Dan: So, with respect for contemporary music, how would you characterize the aesthetic trends currently, from your perspective. We talked a little bit about the second Viennese School and the influences that they had on the 20th century. But in the music of today, a lot of people have different views on what the actual trends are going on right now.
Boris: Well, I think the beauty of it is that it’s so eclectic. People are able to develop their own voices. For example, I enjoy compositions that celebrate the music of the First Nations, and many are celebrating them in a very contemporary way. Sometimes they include improvisatory elements, or they bring in musicians who were not necessarily trained in the “Western” tradition. These musicians bring in their own insight and creativity.
Dan: Yes, I love music that uses performance practices from different cultures.
Boris: Also, for the last few months, I’ve been very involved in Bernstein's music because of the 100th anniversary of his birth and because of my relationship with him as his assistant in the late 1960’s. In some of Bernstein’s music it was hard at first to discern the themes, and at first I couldn’t see a language that was identifiable in his music. Now, looking back, I definitely see the language. The benefit of 50 years is huge. Dan: When I think about Candide and Chichester Psalms, I can latch on to themes in those. But when I think of some of the other works, it requires more concentration.
Boris: The sixth interval is there so much, and his way of combining polytonality and jazz is so compelling. All of that stuff is there regardless of what you’re listening to, whether it’s the Jeremiah Symphony, Candide, or whatever.
Dan: That’s true. Boris: Yes! It is now, but it wasn’t so obvious when I first got to know it. It seemed so different. I just did West Side Story last week in an orchestral version. When you just listen to the music, you hear so much of the influence of the Jeremiah Symphony. There is a voice that is Bernstein. You need to have perspective on a lot of music by an individual to be able to identify that voice. In my programming, I like to latch on to a specific composer and then do a lot of his or her works in a given season. I find that provides a more interesting perspective for the audience.
Dan: That’s interesting. So, on the one hand, even if you don’t have a wide diversity of people in that season, you gain depth in conveying it to the audience. They become more familiar with that composer and even build a relationship with their music. Boris: And also, as a conductor, I build a relationship with them. I like to think that in some way, shape, or form, I would have loved to have been a composer, but I never had the courage. So, through my existing relationship with composers, and helping them perform their works, I contribute to the composer’s creative process. It’s almost a team effort. Dan: Yeah! That segues nicely into my last question, in what ways should conductors interact with contemporary composers and what does this imply for programming in the future. You’ve already answered some of that. Do you have anything to add?
Boris: I think if you have a need to create, you should create. You chose and have a particular voice. As a conductor, you choose a particular creator, or group of creators that you like. And you do a lot of their music. In performing it, you will also become involved with the writing of it. There are very few composers I know who say, “Look. This is what I’ve written. Just do what I say and don’t contribute to it.” That said, with my relationship to Pierre Monteux, I can reach back. I did know Stravinsky. He certainly didn’t like people monkeying with his works in any way. You either did it his way or forget it. But I think that was the only person.
Dan: And, if a composer wants to continue working with a conductor, then he or she shouldn’t have that kind of a closed attitude. As for Stravinsky, that was a different time, but he also had the fame behind him to do that too.
Boris: Yes, and particularly at the time when I knew him. It was around the 50th anniversary of the Rite of Spring.
Dan: Most composers that I know are very interested in the collaborative part of bringing a piece to life.
Boris: And I like that very much! It allows me to be involved without exposing everything, as I feel I would if I were writing music that was solely my own. So, instead, I can influence in a positive sense as a conductor, but the composition is written by others.
Dan: And it’s a living art form. As you say, the performers bring it to life. You have to have the wonderful, creative performers. Well, those are all of my questions for now, though I would love to follow up with you more some other time about Bernstein. But for now, thank you for your time. I appreciate learning your perspectives on these issues!
Boris: Thank you!