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Brott to you with passion: Chamber Music Festival of Montreal

April, 2010

In a whimsical moment, Denis Brott, founder of the Montreal Chamber Music Festival, imagined himself as a Pied Piper for chamber music. The picture is not inaccurate: to promote chamber music, a little magic is definitely in order.

To those not intimately involved in this art form – “house” music, which is not conducted and is played in small groups – may not seem as spectacular as an opera or symphony. When it comes to obtaining funding, a chamber music fest is not an easy sell.

Yet, for the last 15 years, as artistic director of the annual festival, Brott has upheld his family’s tradition of nurturing the musical environment in Montreal by bringing together seasoned and up-and-coming musicians from all over the world. (Brott’s father, composer Alexander Brott, founded the McGill Chamber Orchestra in 1953. It is going strong under the baton of Denis’ brother Boris.)

“Chamber music has a bad rap,” Brott explains. “It’s viewed as something elitist that you need to be of a certain social and financial station to enjoy, when actually its origins were not at all that.”

Chamber music was a major source of fun in most households before the advent of record players and radios. “It was played in the largest room of the house at a time in history when music was what everybody did,” Brott says.

But because of the intimate quality of this type of music, its profound appeal and our need for it go beyond mere entertainment.

Brott likens it to a language:“People forget that music is a language of emotions, that can transcend the limitations of verbal languages. There wasn’t one great composer who didn’t try his hand at a string quartet, at four-part writing that represented the ultimate in balance, the absolute in purity.”

Jazz legend and Chamber Music Festival comrade Oliver Jones with Denis Brott Photo: Elise Boer

Part of Brott’s job is to keep the festival going by soliciting the help of “the few who make it possible for the many,” the funders who understand the importance of something as intangible as the fine arts. “Why do we need museums? Why do we need to look at paintings from other centuries?” Brott asks. “It is what society remembers of itself – all art is a mirror of society, reflecting its most elevated creations and its tragedies.”

Brott sells art and beauty. Sometimes the journey is precarious.

“It’s not an easy walk in the park. Last year we came to the edge of what could have been an abyss.”

Through Brott’s unrelenting work, the festival has grown from a “kitchen table operation” of three concerts to a month-long event with music for all ages and budgets, ranging from free concerts to an olympian Brahms marathon.

And what’s good for the festival is good for Montreal. Of the almost 6,000 people who attend the 19 events (including concerts, films and lectures), 13 per cent are tourists who come to Montreal specifically for the festival, Brott says.

Part of the festival’s popularity is Brott’s willingness to innovate and include events that appeal to younger people, or to serious jazz lovers.

“Sometimes mixing jazz and classical music is a double-edged sword and can offend the hard-core classical lovers,” Brott concedes.

“But chamber music in a way is jazz; it grew out of a need for people to communicate. When slaves were not allowed to talk to each other, they sang spirituals. They made music, banging on whatever they could. The jazz music portrayed the pain and sorrow of this oppression, and also joy.”

Montreal jazz musician Oliver Jones remains a great comrade-in-arms of the festival. Having grown up in a musical family, Brott saw the greatest artists in the world of classical music as guests in his parents’ home.

“Josef Krips, Lili Kraus, Rudolph Serkin, David Oistrakh – these people came through our house. Whether I knew it or not at the time, the passion, commitment and need that these people had radiated from them, and I absorbed that in my pores. My passion for music grew in that way and I learned how important music is in life — to life.”

The 15th Edition of the Chamber Music Festival of Montreal runs May 6 to May 29. 514-489-7444



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