COLLINGWOOD – It was a sold out house. But there was a noticeable absence when the National Academy Orchestra (NAO) opened the 2022 Collingwood Music Festival on Saturday.
It was that of Boris Brott, founder and artistic director of the orchestra for more than three decades. The famous Canadian bandleader and motivational speaker was killed in a hit-and-run in Hamilton earlier this year.
Saturday night’s concert, the festival’s first all-in-person concert since its inaugural season in 2019, celebrated the life and legacy of the late composer with a diverse program including selections from across North America.
Brott, who was 78 when he was killed, left an indelible legacy. In addition to the NAO, he also founded the Brott Music Festival, the largest orchestral festival in Canada and of which the NAO is the orchestra in residence.
But he may be best remembered for championing Canadian artists and reaching new audiences, through his work in broadcasting and his educational concert series for young people.
“He reached youth millions and inspired them to love music and go to concerts,” said Daniel Vnukowski, Founder and Artistic Director of the Collingwood Music Festival and host of “The Classical Jukebox” on The New Classical FM. “On my radio station, people are phoning up and talking about how they went to Boris concerts as a kid and how it changed their lives.
“What a loss for the music community.”
The concert opened with “Sur les rives du Saint-Maurice” by Jacques Hétu, a melancholic piece evoking the sounds of the Saint-Maurice River in Quebec, along which Hétu grew up. The program progressed south to America, with George Gershwin’s jazz-infused “Rhapsody in Blue” featuring a rousing piano performance by Vnukowski.
After the intermission, the rhapsody was followed by another American composition from two decades later: “Appalachian Spring,” Aaron Copland’s beloved 1944 orchestral suite. The 55-member NAO concluded the evening with a fiery rendition of Mexican composer Arturo Márquez’s ‘Danzon No. 2’.
Performing Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” at this concert, in honor of Brott, held special significance for Vnukowski. The pair had talked about performing the Gershwin classic together for more than a decade – dating back almost as far as their friendship. This year’s festival was supposed to be their opportunity.
“He was so excited to come to Collingwood,” Vnukowski said, recalling his last call to Brott just two weeks before his tragic death. “We were working out all the details.”
Canadian conductor, trombonist and composer Alain Trudel took on the role of Brott on the podium on Saturday night. Also from Montreal, Trudel is currently Music Director of the Toledo Symphony Orchestra and was named Acting Artistic Director of the Brott Music Festival shortly after Brott’s death.
“It’s a mix of honor to carry on his tradition and mission, but also a little sad that he’s not the one doing it,” Trudel said of his new role. “Our job is to keep the legacy alive.”
It is fitting that Trudel assume the position that Brott previously held. Trudel has known the Brott family for almost four decades, beginning his career with the McGill Chamber Orchestra, under the direction of Brott’s father, before Brott himself took over.
“Boris had this enthusiasm – this energy. He was such a positive guy,” Trudel said. “The word ‘impossible’ wasn’t in his dictionary.”
Trudel felt it was imperative to program “Le Printemps des Appalaches” in Saturday’s concert. The penultimate section of the suite, commonly referred to as “Shaker Melody,” is one of Trudel’s favorite works.
“There’s something very peaceful and stable about it,” he said. “It reminds me of Boris.”
In addition to the opening night orchestral performance honoring Brott, the 2022 Collingwood Music Festival, which runs through July 15, features eight other events – an eclectic mix of jazz concerts, Indigenous music , classical and folk.
“I curate with the perspective of trying to capture as many musical tastes as possible,” Vnukowski said. “Hopefully it will inspire people a bit to push their limits and try something new.”
Highlights include a Monday night concert featuring Juno Award-winning artist, songwriter and performer, iskwē and Canadian music legend Tom Wilson.
Wednesday evening includes a performance by KUNÉ Global Orchestra. The 12-member ensemble will perform 13 works, including a new work composed by members of the group, titled “Universal Echoes”.
“We came up with the idea of exploring the four elements through music and universal themes of human connection,” said KUNÉ violist and violinist Alyssa Delbaere-Sawchuk. The new orchestral suite album is due out later this year.
The Collingwood Music Festival is one of many stops on KUNÉ’s summer tour of southeastern Ontario – the band’s first major in-person tour since the pandemic began.
“It’s invigorating, it’s energizing to be back,” Delbaere-Sawchuk said. “I think the gratitude and appreciation for those performances is so much more important now that they’ve been lost for so long.”
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