Music and Beyond pays tribute to Brian Law

Brian Law is back in Ottawa to take part in a gala concert celebrating his career in music in this city. Photo: Peter Robb

Jacob Siskind, the legendary music critic of the Ottawa Citizen, was always a little tough on Brian Law.

The persistent criticism from the notoriously hard-nosed Siskind was that Law did too much. And that meant he didn’t prepare things properly.

“I liked Jacob on a personal level,” Law said in an interview with ARTSFILE, but the reviews were another matter.

“Every so often the angry letters would pile up at the Citizen and he would be told that he had to not be so aggressive. So he worked out phrases that he could use that had a double entendre. My favourite was ‘Brian Law conducted with his customary authority’.”

Siskind took his shot but no one would know, except Law.

Siskind certainly had one thing right. Brian Law was pretty much Mr. Everything in Ottawa’s classical music almost from the day he arrived in 1965 to assume the helm of the Men and Boys choir at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in the Glebe.

Brian Law in his Ottawa days.

He has returned to the scene of his musical triumphs to lead a gala concert this Wednesday which will be the climax of this year’s Music and Beyond Festival.

The concert will feature representatives of the many groups he led onto stages in Ottawa and beyond for about 25 years including Thirteen Strings, the Cantata Singers, the Ottawa Choral Society, the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra, the Ottawa Youth Orchestra, and the National Arts Centre Orchestra and, of course, members and alumni of the St. Matthew’s choir including Daniel Taylor who will be a featured soloist and the Grammy winning Paul Halley, who will play the organ in Dominion Chalmers.

The program will feature music, drawn from old programs, with a connection to Law’s time in Ottawa.

He landed in Ottawa a bit early to shake off the jet lag and get ready for a round of rehearsals with this massive gathering of musicians. He met ARTSFILE inside the new addition to the National Arts Centre.

Law had studied at the Royal College of Music in London, England and he was casting about for work after graduation. He applied for a church in Toronto. He had met the rector in England and then he had to go to Canada to meet the church wardens.

“As it happens I was playing as a jazz pianist on a cruise ship going from Southampton to Montreal.” He worked hard on board ship often 14-16 hour days. The experience was invaluable.

And he got to Montreal where he heard many of the world’s great jazz players, like Dave Brubeck, in the clubs.

On one of his stops, he flew up to Toronto and met the church wardens. That went well, but he then had to meet the head mistress at the Bishop Strachan School for girls. Teaching the young Anglican women of Toronto was part of the job.

He met Miss Nicks and “she took one look at me and said ‘Mr. Law, there is no way I can let someone your age (he was 21) loose on my girls’.”

He went back to England and told a friend named Derek Holman about the job. Holman said he’d try for the post and he got it.

Meanwhile St. Matthew’s had heard about Law and they reached out. “That was the best thing that could have happened to me,” he said.

He made another trip to Canada and the rector of the church at the time, Eric Osborne, picked him up in Montreal and drove him to Ottawa. In those days, Ottawa was quite a small town. Unlike today, he said. “I think it’s a grand city now.”

On their journey, Osborne and Law passed by the Chateau Laurier and turned down Elgin Street. On the left, “there were placards up. And (Osborne) said, ‘That hole in the ground has cost a million dollars. They say it’s going to be an arts centre, but we don’t believe them’.”

That hole in the ground would become a most important place in Brian Law’s life. But, first things first.

Law was replacing Gerald Wheeler at St. Matthew’s. Wheeler was on his way to lead choirs in Montreal. Law also soon took on the directorship of the Cantata Singers which Wheeler had also given up.

The jobs started piling up. He next assumed the helm of the Ottawa Choral Society, followed by the Ottawa Youth Orchestra, followed by the Ottawa Symphony. His work with the NAC Orchestra started in this period as well. In the midst of all of that Thirteen Strings was founded and Law was leading that ensemble too, with many performers from NACO. 

Law would stay at St. Matthew’s for 14 years but eventually his other jobs were taking too much of his time. However, his time with the men and boys choir coincided with the early careers of some very important singers including Taylor, Halley and the international opera star Gerald Finley.

“I saw them off to university. I think that choir was perhaps the most useful thing I ever did in my life, looking back at it.”

When he took the position his goal was to establish and maintain a high standard of performance. When he talks to some of his choristers today, he says, they often talk about the bar that he set for them.

Law admits he wasn’t averse to dressing down his singers in a way that “you wouldn’t get away with today.”

The commitment to music started in the family home in South London, near Crystal palace. At age four, he said he showed some aptitude and was put into piano lessons.

“I don’t think it did me any good at all.

But when the family moved to Brighton, something took hold. His piano teacher got his parents to send Law to the Brighton parish church “and that was the beginning of everything.”

Ironically his parents were not religious.

“I have an image of my father standing, hands on hips, shaking his head in disbelief, in the upstairs room on a Sunday morning when I’m on the other side of the street at 8 a.m. catching a bus to go to choir.” Law would become assistant organist in the church, even though he wasn’t particularly religious either.

At school, he started organizing choirs, the first one in grammar school at age 14 with senior and junior boys. In two years, women were admitted and it became the Regency Choir. His first conducted concert was in 1959, marking World Refugee Year.

“It should be famous as the longest concert ever devised. It was interminable,” he said with typical self-deprecation.

Law was always improvising on the piano and the organ that is what sparked an interest in jazz, he said. He stopped jazz based on a warning from Gerald Wheeler, who told Law not to mention that he played jazz because the interviewers wouldn’t take him “seriously.” For the next 20 years, he said, he played jazz privately.

It helped that he also really liked church music, something that was solidified by a summer music camp in London during which he was allowed to play the organ in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

“The most amazing thing was getting in. I was given a key to a door. I would let myself in and it was pitch black in there. I’d turn on a light and two lamps came on and between them was a darkness and I had to walk past the tombs of Wellington and Churchill.”

He’d make his way into the organ loft and start playing. “There was this incredible amount of sound. It was an amazing experience.”

These days he doesn’t play piano or the organ much at all. “I just sort of lost interest,” he said.

His connection to the National Arts Centre started when the centre opened. He was hired first to play harpsichord in concerts. Early on, NACO wanted to stage Dido and Aeneas by Purcell and they needed a chorus. They asked Law if the Cantata Singers could do it.

Mario Bernardi was concerned, Law said.

“He couldn’t stop saying, ‘Are there enough singers? Can they sing in tune, they are amateurs?'”

Bernardi would say of amateur singers, Law said, “the trouble with amateur singers is they absorb more sound than they make. That’s a gem of a line.”

At the first rehearsal, Cantata showed their quality and Bernardi turned to Law and said, “‘Brian, they are a professional choir’.” That gave Cantata a regular role with NACO. Law would go on to work on the summer festivals as assistant conductor and chorus master.

That introduced him to the stars of opera and what to do and what not to do with large productions of that sort. He also watched the next two music directors coming through the NAC Franco Mannino and Gabriel Chmura.

By 1990, Law was 50 and settled. He owned a property in the countryside and he was well-situated financially.

But another call came. This time at the instigation of Franz-Paul Decker, who, among many other roles, was principal conductor of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra a job he was about to give up. Law was feeling the need for a change at about this time.

Over a meal, Decker told Law he would like New Zealand. Within six weeks he phoned Law and offered to give his name to a couple of choirs. Eventually Law took the plunge. He conducted the Verdi Requiem in Ottawa and two days later moved to Christchurch. And he ended up working all over New Zealand for many years.

As he was leaving, his old friend Derek Holman said to him, “the trouble with you Law is you go through life without a rear-view mirror.’ He was right,” Law said.

His last gig in New Zealand was with the Christchurch Cathedral which he assumed after a friend asked for a hand leading the choirs. He didn’t really want the job but he was actually enjoying the work as his former partner pointed out.

Law is not much for reminiscing but he was touched recently when he viewed for the first time a video made of his going away party in Ottawa in 1990.

“I had no memory of it. And there was Maureen Forrester waxing nice about me and Gerald Finley made a great speech. I’ve watched it a few times now. The realization hit me that I must have been good at my job when I was here. But that had never really occurred to me.”

This Ottawa concert will be the second last one Law conducts. He says he’ll conduct one more in New Zealand and then he will hang up his baton for good.

Music and Beyond presents a Brian Law Gala
Where: Dominion-Chalmers United Church
When: July 17 at 7:30 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.