A dynamic presence in the conducting world, Toronto-born conductor Peter Oundjian is renowned for his probing musicality, collaborative spirit, and engaging personality. Oundjian’s appointment as Music Director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) in 2004 reinvigorated the Orchestra with numerous recordings, tours, and acclaimed innovative programming as well as extensive audience growth, thereby significantly strengthening the ensemble’s presence in the world. He recently led the TSO on a tour of Europe which included a sold-out performance at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw and the first performance of a North American orchestra at Reykjavik’s Harpa Hall.
Oundjian was appointed Music Director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO) in 2012. Under his baton, the orchestra has enjoyed several successful tours including one to China, and has continued its relationship with Chandos Records. This season Oundjian and the RSNO opened the Edinburgh Festival with the innovative Harmonium Project to great critical and audience acclaim.
Few conductors bring such musicianship and engagement to the world’s great podiums—from Berlin, Amsterdam, and Tel Aviv, to New York, Chicago, and Sydney. He has also appeared at some of the great annual gatherings of music and music-lovers: from the BBC Proms and the Prague Spring Festival, to the Edinburgh Festival and The Philadelphia Orchestra’s Mozart Festival where he was Artistic Director from 2003 to 2005.
Oundjian was Principal Guest Conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra from 2006 to 2010 and Artistic Director of the Caramoor International Music Festival in New York between 1997 and 2007. Since 1981, he has been a visiting professor at the Yale School of Music, and was awarded the university’s Sanford Medal for distinguished service to music in 2013.
Later this month, Peter Oundjian will be leading the TSO in a benefit for the Hospital for Sick Children, featuring a performance of Peter and the Wolf. I wanted to ask Peter (the conductor, not the hero of Prokofieff’s piece) ten question: five about himself and five more about leading the TSO.
1) Are you more like your father or your mother?
My parents were remarkably unalike. One was born in Istanbul during the Armenian Genocide, the other in the north of England but was an orphan by age 7. I grew up in Toronto and south London in a peaceful, fun loving family with sport, humour, and music everywhere. I also grew up with the Beatles and Monty Python which they certainly didn’t! Hard for me to imagine what my parents would have been like if they’d been born after the Second World War instead of before the First. Looking back, we were worlds apart.
2) What is the best thing about what you do?
Without question it is the privilege of communication on so many different levels; from inspiring a young child to love music, to spending time with music lovers, to sharing the passion for so much great music with other musicians.
3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?
I like to listen to Dylan Moran and I like to watch Roger Federer.
4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
To be able to play the last 3 Beethoven piano sonatas and to improvise like Oscar Peterson.
5) When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?
Play tennis, watch any great sporting event or hang out with family and friends.
Five more about the upcoming year as Music Director of the Toronto Symphony, especially Peter and the Wolf: In Support of SickKids.
1- Please tell us about the fund-raising concert program for the Hospital for Sick Children, and the guests who will be joining you, and is it true that they saved your life?
They absolutely saved my life when I was 3 months old. My mother took me to SickKids in the middle of the night and I had internal bleeding from intussusception. You don’t last long in that condition especially if you weigh less than a large cat. The opportunity to support the extraordinary work that the hospital does all day every day is extremely thrilling and rewarding for me.
The concert is a wonderful celebration featuring music of tremendous variety. Pianist Coco Ma will play Rachmaninoff”s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. She is only 16 and already a wonderful artist.
Rick Mercer, whom we all know to be an accomplished conductor/skydiver, along with multiple other skills to his credit, will narrate the masterpiece Peter and the Wolf by Prokofiev.
It’s also great that Neil Deland, the TSO Principal Horn gets to shine in a delightful arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust – a great American standard and one of the most recorded songs of the 20th century. To start the evening we will play the Young Persons Guide to the orchestra by Benjamin Britten; not only is this a fantastic and exciting piece but I was fortunate enough to make a few recordings with Benjamin Britten when I was a kid.
2- As a Canadian conductor of the TSO, you’ve led performances by Canadian composers, sharing the stage with some great Canadian musicians. Please reflect for a moment on your role as a champion of Canadian musical talent.
If you look back in history, performers have always played a key role in the creation of great music. If we don’t dedicate ourselves to giving opportunities to Canadian composers to write and have their music heard, how can they ever develop or be known. It is both a pleasure in terms of discovery and experimentation and also a challenge to do justice to new music by interpreting with the same care as Beethoven or Mahler or whoever.
3- Tell us about highlights of the current season, such as the Decades Project and New Creations.
I came up with the idea of The Decades Project about two years ago.
The 20th century in most people’s minds evokes modernism in art and culture. It led to the development of the motorcar, the skyscraper, film, and an incredible number of technological advancements. Simply put: The Decades Project aims at putting the music in context. It’s fascinating to see all of the different things that were going on at the same time. For instance, while Sibelius was writing his amazing Second Symphony, Einstein was developing the theory of relativity. Stravinsky wrote The Rite of Spring- an incredible work- shortly after the Titanic sank. The first two decades of the 20th century shaped what we are today! Will being aware of this make people listen to the music differently? Next spring, we will be exploring 1910-1919 withAn Alpine Symphony by R. Strauss, Daphnis et Chloé by Ravel and Elgar’s Violin Concerto (among other things). Each concert includes activities in the lobby, pre-concerts performances with the TSO Chamber Soloists, post-concert chats with AGO Assistant Curator Kenneth Brummel, etc. It’s an immersive experience.
Australian composer, conductor, and violist Brett Dean – one of the most internationally performed composers of his generation – is the curator of the TSO’s 12th annual New Creations Festival. A crucial aspect of Dean’s work as a composer is the fact that art does not arise from a cultural vacuum but is inspired by its environment as well as the social and cultural reality around it. This is interesting, as I was just talking about putting things in context… The music featured in this year’s festival is a comment on our times and, in a festival remix by DJ Skratch Bastid, a comment on the festival itself. Dean has invited fellow Australian composers Anthony Pateras (Fragile Absolute) and James Ledger (North American Première of Two Memorials [for Anton Weber and John Lennon], for works featured in the festival. The festival will also include the Canadian Première of Water, by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. That’s all pretty exciting!
4. Do you have a favourite composer whose music you love to conduct and/or hear?
Most of us end up answering this question the same way; and it’s an honest answer. The music you are playing or conducting at any given moment is your favorite piece. We can be 100 per cent dedicated to it, no doubt about it, no questions asked. I would just add that there are occasionally exceptions but I’m not naming them!
5) Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?
Itzhak Perlman has been an enormous inspiration to me since I was about 9 years old. A great violinist, great musician, an example of how to offer so much to all mankind despite having had so much taken from him at such a young age.
The TSO season rolls along with Peter Oundjian leading them through programs that include the New Creations Festival early next year and some of the first concerts of the Decades Project. But in the immediate future? On Thursday November 26 Oundjian leads the TSO in a benefit concert namely Peter and the Wolf In Support of SickKids.