Lawrence Toppman

Charlotte Symphony pioneer Jacques Brourman has my thanks

During his days as music director of the Charlotte Symphony, Jacques Brourman improved the quality of the soloists. That’s Yehudi Menuhin at right, waiting to enter a concerto.
During his days as music director of the Charlotte Symphony, Jacques Brourman improved the quality of the soloists. That’s Yehudi Menuhin at right, waiting to enter a concerto. Courtesy of Ronn Brourman

We pay homage to guys who build and design skyscrapers, but we don’t always remember guys who cleared the land and made a place for the shining city of the future.

But today I will. Today I pay homage to a man I never met, a conductor I never heard and a pioneer without whom the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra might not be what it is today.

I learned recently about Jacques Brourman’s death at 84 this winter and thought, “Ah, yes, the symphony’s music director long ago.” (The years were 1967-’76.) But as I read more about him in our archives, I realized what a pioneer he was.

The orchestra took its first steps toward professionalism under him, hiring its first full-time contract musicians. He began to incorporate members of the Charlotte Youth Symphony into the orchestra for certain concerts, and CSO principals coached the youngsters before and during regular rehearsals. He increased the number of run-out concerts, especially for children.

And he raised the quality of the soloists, grabbing rising stars in their 20s (Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman) and veterans who had nothing left to prove. Ronn Brourman, one of the conductor’s sons, recalls his mom coming out of the kitchen with chicken soup to find violinist Yehudi Menuhin demonstrating a yoga move in their Mountainbrook home.

Brourman, a Pittsburgh native and the son of Romanian immigrants, stepped into an uncertain situation half a century ago.

George Stegner, who first wrote program notes for the symphony in 1964, once recalled, “Brourman used to drive me up the wall. Since the orchestra was becoming more professional, he would program more difficult works. When it would get near time, and he’d find they couldn’t do it, he’d change the program two, three and four times before they played.”

Under him, the budget grew sevenfold, from about $70,000 to $496,000 – small change by today’s total (between $9.5 million and $10 million), but considerable by the standards of the day for a growing orchestra.

Ronn Brourman points proudly to other things his dad built: Sun Valley Music Festival and Camp in Sun Valley, Idaho, from 1960 to 1970; Sugar Mountain Music Camp and Festival in Sugar Mountain, N.C., in 1973; and Bedford Springs Festival for the Performing Arts in Bedford, Pa., from 1982 to 1990. Just before coming to Charlotte, he set the Boise Philharmonic on a professional course in Idaho.

“He would push orchestras and boards to achieve more than they thought they could,” says Ronn Brourman. “He had a charisma and rapport with people – I think that’s how he got those great soloists – and he was good at talking people into things.”

The elder Brourman, who insisted on concert etiquette, made his last appearance here in 2006 at a “Return of the Maestros” concert that reunited all the living music directors. He conducted, aptly enough, a Romanian Rhapsody by Georges Enesco.

Music critic Steven Brown noted then that Brourmann once stopped the orchestra in mid-piece, because a parent would not remove a squealing baby. So he let his tiny grandson be brought in only briefly during the “Maestros” concert.

“I wouldn’t want to be a hypocrite,” he said.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

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