Denis Brott: Thoughts, after Covid, on Yom Kippur

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Montreal cellist Denis Brott contracted COVID-19 in March. This live performance of Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei with organist Jean-Willy Kunz was filmed at Temple Emanu-El in Montreal on the occasion of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

No matter the religion, we all have doubt, regret, guilt and weakness within. We all seek absolution without judgement as a means of inner peace. We seek redemption, we seek forgiveness. 

Performing Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei this year was especially meaningful. In mid-March, after returning from concerts in Europe, I was severely stricken with Covid-19.

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I almost lost my life. I endured 32 days in an induced coma on a ventilator. I suffered both a viral and bronchial infection. My lungs appeared white on X ray. I dealt with complications affecting my kidneys and liver. I lost 25 kilos, including significant muscle mass, such that I was unable to walk. I suffered terrifying hallucinations. I spent 45 days in hospital and have been recovering and rehabilitating ever since. 

When I returned home from the intensive care unit on May 4 I could barely stand. I needed a walker to balance and to move. The daily functions I had previously taken for granted needed to be relearned. I suffered from post-traumatic stress and nightmares. My hands trembled constantly, making even eating and drinking a challenge. I developed severe neuropathy and swelling, especially in my hands. They tingled as if asleep. They looked like the hands of the Michelin man. The pain was excruciating.

Three weeks later I began the arduous process of returning to playing my cello.

For a musician, your instrument is your voice. I liken my experience to someone who has had a stroke and lost the ability to speak. My trembling hands could barely hold the bow. Attempting to make a sound, what came out was barely a whisper. I had almost no strength and the strings under my left hand felt like razor wire.

Three and a half months later I recorded this video of Kol Nidrei.

It took resolve I did not know I had. The suffering I endured made me appreciate what a privilege it is to speak again. To speak with my cello.

Never have I felt as emotionally implicated in playing this chant of atonement, this song without words, as after having suffered Covid-19. Losing what I love most and finding it again has been somewhat miraculous. It made me delve into my heart and soul and discover what really mattered to me. It was a catharsis. 

For the first time in my life I feel I understand the extent of music’s message. I realize how fortunate I am to be able to speak this language. 

I share this moment with you in humility. I offer this musical prayer with a generosity of spirit filled with love and empathy for the human condition and appreciation for the power within us all to overcome, to discover ourselves and to live again.

–Denis Brott is artistic director of the Montreal Chamber Music Festival.

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