Taras Kulish Orchestre Classique de Montréal Montreal Ukrainian

Orchestre Classique de Montréal director Taras Kulish is second fiddle to none

We spoke with OCM executive director about paying tribute to the late conductor Boris Brott and supporting Ukrainian culture in the OCM’s 83rd season.

As the Orchestre Classique de Montréal heads into a new season, its executive director, Taras Kulish, is at once enthusiastic and reflective. And busy. Very busy.

“It’s been non-stop ever since Boris’s death,” Kulish admits of his hectic schedule after we finally manage to arrange a quick and efficient but nonetheless pleasant FaceTime conversation. Having been involved with the OCM since 2013, Kulish has now stepped full-time into the breach, due in equal parts to tragedy and necessity.

Boris Brott, the OCM’s long-time conductor and son of Lotte and Alexander Brott, who founded the ensemble as the McGill Chamber Orchestra in 1939, died in a hit-and-run in Hamilton in April 2022. The world had only just begun to emerge from the Coronavirus pandemic, Montreal barely peeking out from under a curfew in March when the OCM presented a pared down performance of Bizet’s Carmen, which Brott conducted. One month later, he was gone, leaving the heritage of an octogenarian cultural organization squarely in Kulish’s lap. But Kulish is looking forward, not back.

“I guess the new work is what I’m most excited about,” he says. “I’ve become a fan of new music. Boris instilled me with that love for new music and the importance of supporting new composers.”

For its 83rd season,new lyrical works will be front-and-centre. 

“Each concert has a vocal aspect to it,” Kulish explains of this season’s theme, entitled Lyric and Eclectic, “and also the eclecticism of our repertoire — this year, we go from Bach to Handel to contemporary music to new works we are commissioning.” 

Highlights of the season include a World Premiere production in February of La Flambeau, by the Haitian-born Quebec composer David Bontemps, and the first-ever major symphonic work by Maxime Goulet, entitled Ice Storm Symphony, presented on the 25th anniversary of Montreal’s devastating ice storm.  

“We are recording the symphony this summer,” Kulish says, “and we’ll be releasing the CD in January of 2023. And we’re premiering the piece in June at the Maison Symphonique so it’s a big, big, big project — and a big symphony.”

Big ideas are first and foremost on Kulish’s mind as he prepares to lead the OCM in Brott’s untimely absence. Kulish studied vocal performance with legendary teacher Carmen Mehta and was an accomplished bass baritone, particularly adroit at singing Mozart’s leading roles in international productions of top-tier operas such as Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte

“It was just luck because Mozart is popular,” Kulish tells me of his former singing career, “so I did a lot of these roles everywhere and I enjoyed it very much. But I don’t miss performing. I really don’t. I did what I had to do and my brain is in another place now. As a singer, as a performer, you do your performance and it’s done. It’s a fleeting moment. Whereas with an organization, you’re building something. It’s more of a legacy that I feel I’m building and that’s what I love about it.”

Kulish and I also happen to be of Ukrainian Canadian descent. Just like my own father, and many Ukrainian men of a certain vintage, Kulish is named after perhaps the most well-known Ukrainian, the Romantic poet Taras Shevchenko. I wondered aloud what good the arts community can do right now to support Ukraine while the rest of the world stumbles.

“Continue propagating Ukrainian culture — like, all the time,” Kulish insists. 

“One of the biggest problems that Ukrainian culture has had as an identity is that it has always been sort of a second fiddle to the great Russian composers. The tables need to turn and Ukrainian music and culture and identity need to be really solidified, and that’s why I feel organizations should be planning a lot of Ukrainian repertoire and Ukrainian stuff everywhere. That will help keep the Ukrainian identity at the forefront.”

As the invasion drags on into another season as if it were some bad sitcom, it has, ironically, been the arts community that has become most vocal, organizing benefit concerts and charity events worldwide in hopes that the world does not simply accept the cancellation of another ethnicity.

“In the media, as we see, it’s sort of slowly disappearing,” says Kulish. “People are less and less talking about it while this war is still raging on, so I think the culture can now kick in and be that vector to continue identifying and supporting Ukrainian culture.” ■

This article was originally published in the October 2022 issue of Cult MTL.

The 83rd season of the Orchestre Classique de Montreal at Salle Pierre-Mercure (300 de Maisonneuve E.) runs from Oct. 18, 2022 to June 20, 2023.

For more Montreal music coverage, please visit the Music section.