Ottawa Symphony Orchestra: Making music matter with Mary-Elizabeth Brown

Ottawa Symphony concertmaster Mary-Elizabeth Brown.

Mary-Elizabeth Brown lives many lives — as a wife and mother, as a teacher of music whose students live literally around the world and then as the respected concertmaster of the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra.

Making all that work well is the trick and so far so good.

In her role with the OSO she will lead the way Monday in a concert that celebrates the British tradition of a promenade concert  — a Proms if you will. Brown will be the featured soloist in the performance of Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy. Also on the program at the Shenkman Centre are Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Pomp and Circumstances.

Speaking from Montreal, where she lives with her husband Alain Trudel, who is the artistic advisor and principal guest conductor of the OSO, Brown says, with a laugh, that she has learned to love winter in Quebec’s biggest city. Perhaps it helps, that she’s often on the road to places near, like Ottawa, and far like Brazil.

Her next trip will take her to the Shenkman Centre in Orleans where she will enjoy performing in a Proms concert.

“The tradition comes from the English court. It actually goes back to 18th century when people would stage outdoor concerts which were more informal. Over the centuries things got moved inside but the concerts remain their informality.”

In a former post, Brown led the orchestra at the Aldeburgh Festival which was founded in 1948 by Benjamin Britten. Proms concerts were held in the summer there in the Snape Maltings hall that was once a brewery.

“It’s an amazing, magical place. They take the some of the chairs out and people come with picnic blankets and they sit on the floor. In some of the London Proms, things can get to be really light hearted.

“I enjoy them because they allow classical musicians to let their hair down a bit.”

Classical musicians do have a mostly undeserved reputation for being a bit stuffy.

Brown believes that the imposed formality that surrounds the perception of a classical music performance can create an invisible curtain between the audience and the stage.

“One of things I like most about Proms concerts is that the curtain comes down and you get to see us in a different light. The repertoire tends to be lighter. You can’t find a more popular piece than the Scottish Fantasy. It’s based on Scottish folk tunes. It doesn’t get a whole lot more accessible than that.

“Behind all formality, people can see we are a fun group with a sense of humour. People come to concerts because they love music. We are there because we love music too. This is wonderful common ground that sometimes gets lost.”

The role of concertmaster is a central one in any orchestra. The person is first among equals in the ensemble and is a point of contact between the music director and the players.

It is a role that Brown has explored as a performer and as a student.

“I wrote my doctoral thesis on it. I have been doing this work in one form or another for almost 15 years. It’s very specialized role.

“I see it very much as a service job, in the sense that you are there to support your colleagues and help them play best they can. And also to be of service to support a conductor and to create and realize their vision.

“I like that it is challenging. Every conductor comes with wonderful ideas and a different background. Once you have been with an orchestra for a while you get to know the people, the things that work and the things that are more challenging. Then it becomes this wonderful challenge to help this person with a wonderful vision.

“You assist them in translating that vision into a thing of beauty with your colleagues. There are other elements involved —  diplomatic elements, ambassadorial elements, cheerleading elements.”

It is, in many ways, middle management. The big decisions are in music director territory, she says.

“As a concertmaster you still are part of the orchestra. I’m a player first and foremost.”

In Brown’s case, the job came to her, more than she sought it.

“It was not as though I was in school thinking I’m going to win a concertmaster job somewhere. I stumbled into my first one and then one thing led to another. Before I knew it I was leading a number of different orchestras with wonderful mentors.

“Historically, this is something that is learned by apprenticeship. There are some really good ones who have viewed the job as a vocation and I have tried to follow in their footsteps and search out the best ways to do this.”

That’s a reason why she went back to school after 10 years on the job.

“I think that there is great importance, as a musician, as an artist, to continue growing all the time and to constantly be searching. So I came to the Université de Montréal.” She finished her doctorate last year.

Going back as an adult was a “scary thing, but it has been one of the best decisions I have made. It pushed my playing to a different level and helped me to rethink things.”

Relating to a conductor or a music director is one of those roles she has thought hard about.

“Regardless of who is in front of me (including Trudel) my goal is always the same. It is to reach into my toolbox … and … help  execute their vision to the very highest standards. That’s my job. It’s all about being there to be of service to someone else.”

Speaking truth to power is part of that. A good concertmaster/conductor relationship is based on good communication and trust, she says.

Sounds like a rule book for a strong marriage, doesn’t it?.

“In the sense that you have to take the time to develop a relationship that allows you to talk to each other,” she said.

“Alain and I worked together for years before we got married.” A deep friendship developed into something more and the two were married almost three years ago.

“We have known each other for close to 15 years. We knew each other first as colleagues. From a musical standpoint we hear things and we sense things in a similar ways. We have tendencies that complement each other.

“When they hired me, they didn’t realize we were married. I was sitting at the kitchen table and I got an email saying we’d really like to offer you this contract, we just need to check with our incoming music director Alain Trudel.”

It was a ‘Look at this’ moment. Brown had been invited by the OSO’s former director David Currie as a guest a couple of times.

“The OSO is a really interesting (situation). It was a bit of a departure for us,” she says, because they have tended to pursue their individual careers.

“I’m a bit younger than Alain. And I have always wanted to be absolutely certain that I built my career on my own steam. Normally we keep our professional lives very separate.”

And they don’t talk shop at home where they are most interested in 16-month-old Madeleine.

“She comes with me everywhere. This season we have been to Nashville, Detroit, New York City, Ottawa and Toronto. She  came with me to Brazil last year. She is a very intrepid, charismatic, adventurous little person.”

Madeleine is also showing an interest in music.

“She mimes the violin. She sings. Her favourite book is about Mozart.”

But as far as raising a future musician?

“I think we have both agreed to take a step back and watch to see what she really likes. We are working hard to make life as normal as possible. We have gone out of our way to create as much stability as possible. If it ever became clear that this was not OK for her, it would stop.”

Brown’s final passion is teaching. To that end, she founded Strings Around The World  an initiative that uses the internet to teach children in far away places.

“I teach most of my students by Skype. I see 22 students on five continents every week.” Most of the students are under 18, the youngest is four.

Brown specializes in teaching young students who are very advanced but might be in a place where they don’t have access to good teaching. One of her students is from Tanzania, who is living in Tromso, Norway near the Arctic Circle because of her mother’s work.

Teaching has long been a passion for Brown.

“I realized that I was good at pre-college teaching. I really love it. I decided I would do that and do it well. And I also decided I would be the best violinist and concertmaster I could.

She has met some of her students face to face but that is a rare moment of joy.

There is proof in the results her students get. For example, she works with a home schooling family in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains and two “little ones” from that family won the statewide conservatory exams last year.

“The kids tell me about their science projects, they tell me their new dog or their baby brother. And then they go and play Mendelssohn for me.”

The Ottawa Symphony Orchestra presents At The Proms
Where: Shenkman Centre
When: Feb. 26 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.