He was this close to me,” Peter Oundjian said. “Can you imagine?” The soon-to-be-conductor-emeritus of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra was comparing the proximity of his interviewer the other day at a Liberty Village café to that of Herbert von Karajan during a masterclass at the Juilliard School 42 years ago, when, unexpectedly, the young concertmaster was asked to pick up a baton and lead his fellow students through the slow movement of Brahms’s First Symphony.
Apparently, it went pretty well. The mega-maestro declared in a redoubtable German accent: “You have the hands of a conductor.”
This is one reason why Brahms 1 is part of the playlist of Oundjian’s closing month in Toronto as music director. “It’s a very special piece for me,” he said.
Karajan’s spot assessment proved inspirational when Oundjian, in his 30s, was forced by neurological difficulties in his left hand to abandon a perfectly brilliant career as the first violin of the Tokyo String Quartet.
“Conducting was the obvious way to go,” he said. “It was an extension of being the first violinist of a string quartet.”
While Oundjian had acquired basic conducting chops at Juilliard, he does not deny that his thorough acquaintance with the chamber music of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms had more than a little to do with his confidence in core orchestral repertory when he became, in 2004, the second Canadian (after Sir Ernest MacMillan) to take the artistic reins of the TSO.
This was a return to the city of his birth and first five years. Oundjian’s father, a sergeant in the British army, had seen his share of horrors in the Second World War. His mother thought it best to start fresh in Canada.
“An Easter-egg hunt,” Oundjian responds when asked what recollections he has of his Canadian beginnings. As well as a backyard toboggan run that was terminated by a tree.
Yet it was back in the United Kingdom that Oundjian studied at the Charterhouse School (which Ralph Vaughan Williams had attended) and the Royal College of Music. Also where he acquired an indestructible English accent and sense of humour, the latter perhaps allied to that of his cousin, Monty Python trouper Eric Idle.
Studies in New York followed, as well as a positive review in the New York Times, and no end of quartet performances and recordings. In 1995 Oundjian put down the violin, his reputation and connections intact, and started conducting.
He was a good fit for the TSO, which was at a low ebb 14 years ago after the unhappy tenure of Jukka-Pekka Saraste (which ended in 2001) and a series of bad-news budgets. At least the famously inadequate acoustics of Roy Thomson Hall had been improved through a structural renovation.
With some of Karajan’s advice in mind (“guide the orchestra, don’t impose yourself”) Oundjian steadily rebuilt the band while adding big late- and post-romantic scores to his personal repertoire. More than half of TSO players, and two-thirds of principals, are Oundjian picks. While few would question Oundjian’s authority in choosing strings, he seems also to have an ear for wind, brass and percussion, and how they work together.
“Très solide,” declared Claude Gingras of La Presse in 2012 when Oundjian and the TSO performed Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 12 in Montreal, where the resident MSO was regarded as the gold standard.
Recordings appeared of other big Russian scores on the homemade TSO Live label: Shostakovich’s Seventh and Eleventh, Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Oundjian’s farewell recording, just released on Chandos, is of music by Vaughan Williams, whom Oundjian came to appreciate as a student in 1972, the composer’s centenary year. He had already documented Symphonies No. 4 and 5 on TSO Live in 2011.
“Being in England from age 5 to 19, you’re going to be an Elgarian, you’re going to love Vaughan Williams, Thomas Tallis and William Byrd,” Oundjian says. “And Benjamin Britten of course, because I knew Britten and recorded with Britten.” The Shakespeare program of June 26 with Christopher Plummer naturally includes music written by William Walton for the movie Henry V.
Also part of the homestretch, on June 20 and 23, is Mahler’s Ninth, valedictory music if ever any was written. Yet, the conductor waxes most poetic when speaking about Bruckner, whose Eighth Symphony in the 1887 version he led last month in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.
“There is something about Bruckner that fills me with so much joy and optimism that I feel light for many hours afterwards,” the conductor confessed. “It’s really extraordinary. The music is unlike almost anything else. The spirituality, the profundity.”
Oundjian hopes to add the Ninth soon to his personal repertoire of the Third, Fourth, Seventh and Eighth.
Where he shall have the opportunity to do so is not completely clear. Oundjian, 62, is also giving up the music directorship of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. His last official concert with the RSNO, on Sept. 6, is a performance of Britten’s War Requiem for the Proms at Royal Albert Hall.
“I’m not in a rush,” he said about the prospect of another top position. “But I’m open to it.” Oundjian is artistic advisor this summer of the Colorado Music Festival, but his only steady job is as principal conductor of the Yale Philharmonia.
Oundjian has taught at Yale since 1981. “We’re back home,” he said, referring jointly to his wife Nadine and the house in Connecticut that in fact never ceased, during his Toronto tenure, to be his principal address.
“Am I Canadian? Am I English? Am I Armenian?” Oundjian asks. “I don’t really know how to answer that. And I’m not alone now in the world. People are from all kinds of different countries.” The conductor holds passports to three of them: Canada, the U.K. and the United States.
The TSO years, a frank success artistically, were not without their rough patches. Oundjian mentions the cancellation of a 2012 tour with Lang Lang as a letdown, although subsequent trips to Europe and Israel made amends.
There were headlines that had little to do with music, such as the tabloid-ready resignation in March 2016 of CEO Jeff Melanson following the breakup of his marriage to frozen-food heiress Eleanor McCain. Oundjian continues to defend Melanson as a “charismatic and eloquent person” who “had a lot of vision.” The whole business was a “blip,” in Oundjian’s view, rather than a significant setback.
One of Melanson’s notable actions in 2015 was the cancellation of an appearance by the Russian-speaking Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa after the latter issued tweets that equated Ukrainian political leaders with swine (and certain anatomical parts thereof).
“He didn’t want to give a platform to that voice on the Toronto Symphony stage with his name as executive director,” said Oundjian, who remained silent through the uproar. “It was a very big step to take. One could argue that it backfired in various ways. But as far as I was concerned, he was very sincere about it.”
More recently the TSO was in the news for being on the receiving end of a $50,000 cut in funding from Toronto City Council ostensibly for failing to meet “diversity and inclusion goals” as well as hypothetical standards of “governance” and “impact.”
“All the press has been saying how amazing it is that we have spread our wings and affected more people with our music and have bigger audiences,” Oundjian says of this decision. “We go out and do things in the community and all of a sudden we are being swiped for it. I don’t understand it.”
Whatever diversity and inclusion mean to municipal politicos — the concert of June 13 was given in collaboration with Pride Toronto — the TSO has been cultivating new audiences through screenings of films with live orchestral accompaniments. The Wizard of Oz, Home Alone and Jaws were among the offerings this season.
While he has played no active role in these presentations, Oundjian supports them not only as a way of filling contracted weeks of service but as a means of putting non-classical listeners in touch with live performance and symphonic music. “We have to justify our existence by being a significant element to a broad enough segment of the community,” he says.
At the other end of the symphonic spectrum stands the New Creations Festival, one of Oundjian’s most notable programming innovations, and a platform on which Canadian and foreign composers could meet as peers. For better or worse, New Creations has been shuttered, along with the January Mozart Festival. TSO interim CEO Gary Hanson argues that bundling contemporary scores into regular subscription programs makes them available to more listeners.
The Oundjian celebration, in any case, concentrates on classics. On June 16, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in the Ravel transcription, always a showcase for an orchestra, is coupled with Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Russian star Daniil Trifonov as soloist.
The final trio of concerts of June 28, 29 and 30 are dedicated to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the ultimate special-occasion score. Not untouched by historical practice, Oundjian predicts that his tempo for the Adagio molto e cantabile might be close to being twice as fast as that taken by Leonard Bernstein in his famous 1989 recording on the occasion of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“But the Ninth is different from the others in so many ways,” Oundjian says. “The Fifth is incisive, the Seventh ebullient, the Sixth has this liquid beauty. The Eighth is more like an early classical symphony. But when you get to the Ninth, suddenly you’re dealing with a mass.
“If we have the capacity now to play with a certain kind of weight and drama that was not available because the [string instrument] necks were too short and the bows were too light — if we can give it real power — I think, if Beethoven were here, would he be excited or offended?”
Whoever succeeds Oundjian after the two-year interregnum of Sir Andrew Davis as interim artistic director can feel reasonably confident of inheriting an orchestra of high calibre.
“I think the Toronto Symphony has a wonderful purity,” Oundjian said. “Ensemble is quite exceptional. When I go around the world and compare it to orchestras I guest conduct — [thay are] quite exceptional. And from the first reading as well. They don’t have a ‘rehearsal mode.’ They just play really well. And with great flexibility.
“You should have seen the audiences [last year] in Vienna. They are very surprised by the quality of the TSO. Which is in a way gratifying, in a way annoying. Why are you surprised? But it is better that they have higher expectations that we fulfil.”
Is the TSO underrated?
“Absolutely, yes. I think, however, that if all goes well, and my successor has a positive energy, the momentum that has been created will continue. Enough people know now about the quality of the Toronto Symphony. I very much hope they continue to grow their reputation.”
The wisdom of Peter Oundjian
“It never entered my head that we were competing with them. It’s such a different beast completely. They are a wonderful group with a special language and a terrific following. I was excited that they were in town. It gave Toronto extra credibility as a cultural city.”
On visiting international orchestras:
“Competing with the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Concertgebouw, that’s a more interesting comparison. That week, quite understandably, people want to hear these orchestras, and there is an effect on [ticket sales for] the TSO.
“I would like to think that Toronto could be more like New York, where there are orchestras coming in all the time, and people would be more and more interested in hearing symphonic music. Our following would be expanded. “
On conducting opera:
“Jimmy [American conductor James] Conlon said to me once, ‘Only do opera if you are prepared to be addicted to it.’ I just haven’t entered that world.”
On film scores:
“Players say this is really hard music to get around, as hard as Mahler 9. They are long scores that can be relentlessly difficult.”
On not liking classical music:
“People will say ‘I don’t like classical music.’ Then you say did you see — name a film with a John Williams score — and they say, ‘Oh, yes, I loved the music to that.’ Well, then you love symphonic music.”
On Roy Thomson Hall:
“RTH is not as bad a hall as people like to say. But you have to work hard to create warmth. You have to let the bow float more and colour it beautifully with the left hand, to let the sound spin, to create a resonance that is very clear and pure.”
On the cancellation of the Last Night of the Proms in 2013:
“I don’t know why they stopped it. There are certain things where the music director is… You pick your battles, let’s put in that way. I saw that it was very successful and a lot of people loved it. There must have been some kind of [directive] from the top management or marketing [people] persuading the artistic side that it’s played itself out, it’s seen its time.
“I personally don’t understand how that could ever happen. The Last Night of the Proms is such an obvious thing too. The best way for me to answer is that there are some things that I do not control and have not controlled. I didn’t make it my battle. Maybe this is one of my regrets. Because it did draw a wonderful audience.”
On Bernard Labadie and the Mozart Festival:
“Wonderful. He comes in and does his Mozart, and it has a more pure, classical kind of approach. Lighter than my approach. I love what I hear when Bernard is conducting.”
On the significance of wind principals:
“Kelly [Zimba] has a very different sound from [former principal flute] Nora [Shulman]. That’s a different Toronto Symphony right there.”
“A great orchestra has to have amazing flexibility. It’s not like [the late German baritone] Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. With Fischer-Dieskau, after two notes you know it’s him. You identify the voice immediately. With the symphony orchestra, my goal over the years has been to create an infinite number of voices.”
“The danger is that we are perceived as being elitist, and we actually are. Beethoven would have disapproved of this. He didn’t have the competition of the Beatles and Pink Floyd. But he was a man for the people.”
On the search for the next music director:
“There is nothing you don’t know. They are not that far along.”