Peter Oundjian prepares to take a final bow in Southam Hall as head of TSO

When Peter Oundjian raises his baton on the podium in Southam Hall Monday, it will be for the last time with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

After 14 years, Oundjian is moving on with “no regrets.” He’s also given up his position with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

This liberation “is exciting. I am doing a lot of really interesting guest conducting right now all over the world with fine orchestras in various countries.”

He’s even going to Armenia for the first time, which could be an adventure given the current political unrest there. He’s also toured with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. He’s doing “things I could never do because of the day job,” including a role as the artistic advisor at the Colorado Music Festival in Boulder.

“And I have a bit more time to attend to my situation at Yale as principal conductor of the university’s philharmonic orchestra.” Nope, he’s not slowing down at all.

With all that excitement on the horizon, Oundjian is also reflecting on his time with the TSO. It’s not all rosy. The orchestra’s problems have been widely reported in the Toronto media over the past few years and these take a toll.

“There are a few things that are painful to deal with and still are aggravating. That is always the case in any job,” Oundjian said.

Raising money would be one of those aggravating things.

“It is a very tough thing for arts organizations. The Toronto Symphony has done reasonably well, but there are areas where we might have expected to have more success in fundraising when I think about it. It’s not as if Toronto isn’t an incredibly wealthy city.

“I wouldn’t want you to write this, however, without saying there have been large numbers of people who have been extraordinarily generous to the TSO.

“That (generosity) really enabled me to be very creative, to take the orchestra on tour, to take them to Carnegie Hall. I only cite the fact that if we could have gotten a few more yeses from people with significant wealth (the TSO could have done more). I think the TSO deserves to be in a stronger position financially. I wish I had been able to achieve that,” he said.

“I ended up some years being a pretty large donor myself just to keep things going. Sometimes you have to lead the way. People probably don’t realize the extent to which a music director has to commit to the organization in a very full way. We make sacrifices and everyone of them was worth it. I’ll speak about these things, but it is not as if I have any regrets.

“I would have loved for people to really view the TSO as more of a national treasure.” He notes that the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and the NAC Orchestra both seem to be in a stronger position in comparison.

However there have been great achievements too. If Oundjian’s time at the TSO has been defined by anything it is his commitment to new work. The orchestra undertook a massive effort to commission pieces marking Canada 150 and has been justly praised for that. But that kind of effort is only part of the story.

“The New Creations Festival was pretty much my first idea when I became music director. I wanted to make a very positive statement about the importance of commissioning and the importance of hearing and performing new works and having the composers there.” (Editor’s note: In a season put together by Sir Andrew Davis, as interim artistic director, while the search continues for a replacement for Oundjian, the festival has been reduced to a concert in January 2019, according to the Toronto Star — yet another regret perhaps).

“This is not a museum. Over the years we have had 14 festivals. They have had the added benefit of allowing me to do contemporary music in other concerts. Subscribers were curious about the festival and would start to come. And very often they would enjoy it. It was energizing.”

The momentum of the festival allowed his concert programming to be more adventurous. He noted that, one season, he opened with a performance of John Adams’ Harmonielehre.

“That made a strong statement,” Oundjian said, “probably stronger than any contemporary music festival could deliver. Being more daring and staying relevant to what is being created today is important in my view.”

There are other big things on his résumé.

“The trips to Carnegie Hall stand out, especially the 2008 concert when we played the Shostakovich 11. That was momentous because there is something very powerful about that piece and there was something electrifying about that audience and how they responded.

“The following Carnegie visit, with Itzhak Perlman, my former teacher, was also very special. Also we performed Vaughan Williams’ Fourth Symphony; I was at the same school as Williams and he is one of my favourite voices in 20th century music.

“The two European Tours, especially the residency in Prague and the performance in Vienna were significant. At a certain point you know you have to go out and conduct at your best and when you get acknowledgement like that” it is memorable, he added.

“We have a series of recordings that aren’t talked about much. Even I can enjoy them … now.” There is one more coming on the Chandos label with all Vaughan Williams music.

He will miss the orchestra, he says.

“They are almost like family to me. I have a deep affection for those people. I enjoy going backstage to see all those wonderful faces. I will miss the audience. I feel that we have warm and appreciative audience, one that really listens in a way that can inspire the orchestra and me and I really appreciate that.”

Oundjian has seen the music world transform in his time with the TSO. The relationship between conductor and orchestra was changing even before the revelations of #MeToo.

“There is a wonderful Youtube of Toscanini screaming at his double bass section. There are conductors who were tough on the podium especially when they were young. Herbert von Karajan was one … but he wasn’t  unfair. There was time when you could be unfair and belittle people.” Not any more.

Oundjian says it began to change with Leonard Bernstein who “actually really wanted people to be inspired by him. Backstage he wanted them to look at him with affection.”

This is a tricky business, he says, a very delicate balance.

“You have to be so passionate about what you want and believe so totally that these professional musicians whose particular expertise is that they can make your imagination come to life, will do that, even if it’s nothing to do with their own imagination.”

As an example, he recalled a conversation with a concertmaster of the Houston Symphony after a rehearsal.

“I asked him for his opinion of the tempo in Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony. He said to me ‘I’m sorry, do you know what we do? We are professional musicians. What you show we make happen. That’s the way it is. I don’t sit there judging, I just try to make it work.'”

A conductor is not a dictator, Oundjian said, but “you have to be absolutely convinced of what you want to hear. If not, it’s hard for people to figure out what to do. Truly great conductors are always clear. … In a way you have to be very domineering but you can still be nice. It’s actually more frustrating for players if you are too nice and wishy washy and they can’t tell what you want.” But, he added, you have to assume you could be wrong.

The last concert in Ottawa, which includes a show in Montreal, features works by Mozart and Bruckner and one of Oundjian’s good friends.

“The (piano) soloist is one of my oldest friends and somebody I have admired pretty much my entire life, Leon Fleisher. We both suffered from focal dystonia so we have a particular closeness from that. But he is truly one of the most extraordinary artists. His sound is unique just absolutely amazing. I’m thrilled he’s there. The Mozart Piano Concerto No. 12 is a very beautiful and pure piece of music.”

But the Bruckner is a special performance, Oundjian says.

“This is not the one everybody hears all the time. This is the original version.”

He explained that the original symphony was savaged by the conductor Herman Levy, and Bruckner basically hid it away and rewrote the piece.

“This first version is actually magnificent, one of greatest pieces of music I know. Twelve years ago a Canadian named Paul Hawkshaw working at Yale who is a Bruckner scholar, started to look at the original manuscript. We did first performance of this piece at Yale and it was almost like a new work. I have done three performances of it in Scotland and these four shows in Canada are the next.

“It is a new experience, amazing, powerful and perfect. It’s tragic to me that Bruckner spent three years rewriting it because the first one was so great.”

He says he has been conducting a lot of music that is important to him; pieces such as the Brahms Requiem, Mahler 9 and Shostakovich 7.

“I love a lot of music. These are certainly some I love the most, they are epic. Bruckner is one of most magnificent pieces ever. He is not nearly as popular as he should be.”

Toronto Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Oundjian
Where: Southam Hall
When: May 7 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.