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Canadian Conductor Extraordinaire
By Walter Pitman
Dundurn Press, 430 pages, $40
If luck is defined as education meeting opportunity, Victor Feldbrill was a lucky man.
Former Ontario MP Walter Pitman prefers good fortune in this eloquently written biography of Canada's senior and pre-eminent homegrown maestro.
Though maestro is a convenient term labelling any classical-music conductor, it's one that Feldbrill probably abhors, since it smacks of the glamorous façade he always detested. Feldbrill was, and is, a conductor of courage, preparedness and efficiency, not to speak of passion, dedication and formidable talent as a leader and, above all, artist.
This is the story of a task-focused and engaging subject — learning, soul searching and seeking to make his art relevant in a country on the verge of being ready for it.
Feldbrill's home orchestra was the Toronto Symphony, which he was to serve first as violinist, then as resident conductor. But it was the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra that gained the most from his skills in this way.
Feldbrill was superbly equipped in 1958 when at 34 he became the WSO's conductor. It was the first time in 25 years that a Canadian had been chosen to lead one of the nation's major orchestras. The previous Canadian was the estimable Sir Ernest MacMillan at the helm of the TSO.
MacMillan was a significant force in Feldbrill's career. During the war, where Feldbrill served as a violinist in the touring revue Meet the Navy, an introductory letter from MacMillan made it possible for him to connect with the great British conductor Sir Adrian Boult. Boult became another Feldbrill mentor, as did the equally famous conductor Pierre Monteux.
Attending rehearsals, concerts and making valued friendships, Feldbrill worked with the likes of Sir Thomas Beecham, Robert Shaw and Herbert Howells, all the while collecting scores, asking questions and throwing himself into every possible musical realm from chamber music through opera.
As WSO music director from 1958 to 1968, Feldbrill laid the groundwork for the quality and consistency of today's WSO, its outreach and even the concert hall in which it plays.
Prior to his coming, the WSO was a per-service orchestra where the musicians were hired as needed. Artistic consistency was spotty, expectation of regular work non-existent.
Feldbrill immediately put the WSO's core players under a season contract, hiring extra musicians only where necessary. He expanded the orchestra's role in the community to include family and young people's concerts, expanded the WSO's repertoire to include more works by Canadian composers than all other Canadian orchestras combined, and in general put the WSO on the country's musical map.
The latter years of his WSO tenure weren't happy ones, primarily due to board and management interference, which Pitman discreetly covers without naming names.
Feldbrill returned to Toronto, where he regularly conducted the TSO. His legendary youth programming, teaching and constant support of Canadian composers led to many awards.
Feldbrill was revered in Japan in the 1980s where he had numerous appointments at Tokyo University. The United States beckoned, but Feldbrill balked, preferring to stay in his own country at, one suspects, considerable career cost, given his abilities.
Pitman paints the times well. One senses as much autobiography as biography here, the feeling of Feldbrill's story coming from his own words, especially his five-decade love for his soul mate and wife, Zelda.
Especially touching is her influence on his developing worldliness and both their desires for a balanced family life. Indeed, Feldbrill performances were always models of balance, integrity and deeply felt musical communication, where there was never an anonymous note.
This is a comprehensive and enjoyable story of an inspiring Canadian, to whom Winnipeg is especially indebted.
James Manishen played clarinet with the WSO during the Feldbrill years and continues to work for the orchestra as artistic adviser.