A Conversation With: Toronto Symphony Orchestra Director Peter Oundjian

Classic Arts Features   A Conversation With: Toronto Symphony Orchestra Director Peter Oundjian
As Peter Oundjian prepares to open his fifth season as music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on Sept. 16, ticket sales are at an all-time high, with record numbers below the age of 30. The TSO will play Carnegie Hall Oct. 4 for the first time in a decade.

While this upcoming New York concert marks Oundjian's conducting debut at the storied venue, he is no stranger to the Hall, having performed there many times over the years as a solo violinist and a member of the Tokyo String Quartet.

Peter Oundjian has become a frequent guest conductor with many of America's great orchestras, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony, among others. In Europe, Oundjian has ongoing relationships with the Tonhalle-Orchester Z‹rich and L'Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. He is currently Music Director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Principal Conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and Visiting Professor at Yale University.

With attendance and contributions going strong, the maestro took a moment to talk about the reasons for and the forces behind the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's phenomenal recent success, and his plans for the orchestra's future.


Question: You just finished an incredibly successful season with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Revenues are up, audiences are enthusiastic, and you're about to begin the second four-year contract with the organization. Given that the orchestra was facing some very dire circumstances when you first joined it, your successes in Toronto must be extremely gratifying.

Peter Oundjian: Everything has changed so much. When I first arrived, we had the production company Rhombus waiting to make a film, which became the enormously successful Five Days in September, but we didn't have any money. The orchestra's finances were a mess then, but we've just now received a 3.5 million dollar gift for a concertmaster chair, our third multi-million-dollar gift in two years. We now have the resources for the coming season to do massive pieces like Mahler's Third Symphony and a weeklong residency with Lang Lang. We're bringing a big piece, Shostakovich's Eleventh Symphony, to Carnegie Hall in October. And all of this is happening within the first three weeks of the season. So yes, I'm feeling very happy about what we've achieved.

Q: What have been the principal drivers of this success?

PO: Somehow, we've woken up a sleeping giant. Toronto is a giant city, and that city's orchestra is developing a real confidence now. Our Tsoundcheck program reaches 37,000 young listeners; it's internet-based, and _ like Obama's campaign _ it brings a new and much younger audience to the hall. And our New Creations Festival, which focuses on contemporary music, has gone from being a tough sell to being one of the hardest tickets to get. During the bad years of the TSO, the Toronto Opera was highly successful. They raised money for a new building and heightened their international stature. In the late 1980s the TSO was a major orchestra with a 50-week season. During the '90s things changed and declined rapidly. The orchestra had seven different CEOs during this time. But that's all different today and the city is now getting the orchestra that it really deserves.

Q: The success of the orchestra seems to have really galvanized the community.

PO: Well, momentum is very important in an organization. It reminds me of that Woody Allen line about relationships: they're like sharks, and they have to keep moving forward or they die. For us that means going to Carnegie Hall, introducing new programs, finding new ways to raise money. And these have an impact on the city and make the organization relevant. You can't just be all about history: reinvention is critical. When you have a group of musicians actually interested in this forward momentum, many great things are possible. Having come from a difficult situation, the musicians of the TSO fully realize that we have to be on board with new ideas. In my experience, musicians have a healthy attitude towards new ideas, but the Toronto players have shown an exceptional openness.

Q: And it seems like the audience has come right along with you and the musicians?

PO: A key to that has been removing some of the imaginary boundaries between the orchestra and the audience. I think our new listeners are less intimidated. I speak with the audience frequently during our concerts because I want to set things up a bit for the new listeners. But the "old" _ or perhaps I should say "more experienced" _ listeners don't mind. Audiences want to be taken on a journey and sharing with them the context of a work can create an atmosphere in the hall that greatly enhances the experience.

Q: Besides showing their approval for what you're doing by buying tickets, in what ways do you find audiences communicating their experiences with you?

PO: We have a strong line of communication between our organization and our listeners. We get lots of feedback through surveys and the internet. That's how we learnt that our afternoon concerts _ our matinees _ should have no intermissions. People don't want to sit in traffic after a full-length afternoon concert. The baby boom generation wants to leave the office early and hear a compact pre-dinner concert. Our rush-hour programs are based on this feedback. Overall, we're trying to understand what each constituency might need and to provide enough products (if you don't mind using a crass sales and marketing term!) for those various segments. We can't always offer the same product; we have to be very eclectic and attract many new constituents. For all of this, feedback is very important. As a result, we're getting out into the community in a big way. Every year, 110,000 schoolchildren hear the orchestra!

Q: Let's talk a bit about your Carnegie Hall concert in October. This will be the first time the orchestra has played there in a decade! Did you do a lot of agonizing about what you should program?

PO: This is a hugely important concert for the orchestra and for me, and everyone has been extremely thoughtful about the program. Ute Lemper will join us for Kurt Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins, and our big orchestral piece will be a Shostakovich symphony. There was some interest in doing his Tenth, but we opted to perform his Eleventh instead and I'm very excited about this decision. It's a very powerful work that has a huge impact on the audience.

Q: Tell us a bit about this piece, which has a reputation for being a harrowing emotional ride...

PO: Shostakovich wrote his Eleventh Symphony after the Hungarian uprising and massacre in 1956, and clearly that event was on his mind. The works bears the subtitle "The Year 1905", which is the year that the Russian Tsar's troops shot at a large gathering of unarmed peasants who were appealing to him for help. It's a phenomenal depiction of much more than just the event that inspired it. Shostakovich captures the human action, the anger, the tragedy, and above all, the defiance. I feel that this piece reflects human strength in the face of adversity.

Q: Is there a special connection between the Toronto Symphony and the works of Shostakovich?

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Peter Oundjian
photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

PO: Actually, there is a large Russian population in Toronto and there are a lot of Russian musicians in the orchestra. Shostakovich has been an important voice in the orchestra for decades. For me personally, the whole history between Armenia and Russia comes to play. I'm from an Armenian background, and our country was part of the Soviet system and exposed to the similarly dark forces that Shostakovich himself experienced. A lot of his music finds its power in its depiction of human suffering. Just think of the Seventh Symphony, and its description of the siege of Leningrad. Beyond that, I played Shostakovich quartets when I was a member of the Tokyo String Quartet. His, along with Bart‹k's, are the greatest quartet sets of the 20th century. We didn't play all the Shostakovich quartets, but enough for me to be deeply drawn in to its very powerful language.

Q: How would you describe that language?

PO: It's extremely intense, but it's also very accessible and very direct. In 1994 we played a Beethoven cycle in Vienna while the Borodin Quartet played a Shostakovich cycle. Hearing his music alongside Beethoven's left a very powerful impression on me.

Q: Are there plans for you to record any Shostakovich works with the TSO?

PO: We've made a recording of Shostakovich's Seventh for TSO-Live, the label we launched just four months ago, and we will record his Eleventh Symphony in the week leading up to our October 4 concert at Carnegie Hall.

Q: You've already released Bruckner's Fourth Symphony with the TSO and a Mussorgsky/Elgar disc. What do you have planned for future releases?

PO: We can make up to five CDs a year from live concerts. This is a very invigorating experience for the orchestra as it enables them to have their voice heard outside Toronto. It's challenging too. Knowing that a recording is being made can change the atmosphere for the musicians. (The way we do it, though, they often don't even know when the microphones are on.) It's brought a new energy to the orchestra. We're focusing on big works. We're going to do Mahler's Third and Bruckner's Eighth, Shostakovich's Seventh and Eleventh Symphonies, and The Planets and Rite of Spring.

Q: You're a busy guest conductor. Tell us a bit about what you'll be doing with other orchestras in the upcoming season.

PO: One thing I'm particularly excited about is to be working with young musicians. I'm thrilled to be conducting the Curtis Orchestra in Verizon Hall (Philadelphia), the Yale Philharmonia, the New World Symphony, and also the Conservatory Orchestra in Toronto. That's four weeks of time _ more of a commitment than I've done in the past. But as Leonard Bernstein taught us all so well, working with young people provides a great deal of stimulation, so I'm happy to be spending more time doing this. I'm going to the San Francisco Symphony for the fourth time. This will be my last year opening the Detroit Symphony season (Leonard Slatkin will be taking over the orchestra in mid-season); my title as artistic advisor will end, but I'll maintain principal guest and director of the 8 Days in June Festival. It's a very cutting-edge festival. Every season has a theme such as "Conflict and Creativity" or "Power of Change." I'm also going back to the Baltimore Symphony, which is a very fine orchestra; the Houston Symphony, with whom I've had a long and treasured relationship; and back to Paris.

Q: Earlier in this conversation you mentioned the importance of making the orchestra _ and I assume, by extension, classical music itself _ relevant to the community. Is it accurate to say that this is one of the primary inspirations for your approach to making music?

PO: I want to embrace as many people as I can and ignite their passion for discovering music. We value health and happiness in our society. We focus on making a good living _ material security _ and I don't blame people for wanting these things. But amidst this quest for security we lose sight of and don't really understand what nourishes the human psyche. I'm amazed by how emotionally involved people get about sports teams. With the iPod bringing music more into people's lives, I think it's an exciting time to make music more relevant to a broader spectrum of the community. Making good music more affordable is an important part of the equation, which is why this issue is so important to our strategic plan in Toronto. We want the concert experience to better suit how people live today.

Q: Your confidence in the power of music to transform lives and enrich a community is very inspiring.

PO: That's exactly why all of the arts are so important. I recently saw Ralph Fiennes and Liam Neeson doing two Beckett plays at Lincoln Center. It was a hugely "tuned-in" New York audience, but there were just mildly curious people there too. It was such a powerful experience just to be there in that audience, in that atmosphere of people discovering something, where their minds are being forced to respond. The arts are so much more than a distraction, so much more than entertainment. None of us should ever lose sight of that.

Interview courtesy of 21C Media Group, Inc. 

Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall
October 4 at 8 PM
Toronto Symphony Orchestra
Ute Lemper, vocalist
Peter Oundjian, conductor

Weill: The Seven Deadly Sins
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103, "The Year 1905"


For tickets and further information visit the Toronto Symphony Orchestra website or www.carnegiehall.org

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