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article imageToronto Symphony Orchestra director talks TSO, classical music Special

By Andrew Moran     Mar 11, 2011 in Entertainment
Toronto - Toronto-born conductor and music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO), Peter Oundjian sat down with Toronto Star classical music critic John Terauds to discuss the TSO, his days as a violinist and his times with Itzhak Perlman.
Some may argue that classical music, similar to jazz, is a dying genre. Others may say that classical music is beginning to become reinvigorated by many of the orchestras around the world by using modern day technology.
Whether these statements are true or not, TSO music director Peter Oundjian has attempted to mix the old and new at downtown Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall. Oundjian, who is a former violinist and music professor at Yale University, does it all at the TSO in order to continue the tradition of classical music, including fundraising, plan future seasons and “celebrate the music” instead of having the same old weekly programs.
On Friday, the Toronto Star continued its Star Talks series at the Toronto Reference Library – last month, the program spoke with Canadian Liberal Member of Parliament Bob Rae and author and wife of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Margaret Trudeau.
This week featured a discussion with conductor Peter Oundjian.
Oundjian was born in Toronto, but was raised in England. He studied violin training at the famous Julliard School in New York. Oundjian has studied with such greats as Dorothy DeLay, Itzhak Perlman and Ivan Galamian. As well as being the music director at the TSO – where he has been absolutely imperative for its resurgence, which was noted several times throughout the discussion – Oundjian will be conducting the Colorado, Dallas, Israel, Seattle, St. Louis and Royal Scottish National Orchestras.
Toronto Symphony Orchestra music director Peter Oundjian.
Toronto Symphony Orchestra music director Peter Oundjian.
TSO’s success, modern day classical music and TSO Soundcheck
What has been some of the methods of success for TSO? Oundjian explained that he attempts to mix the old and the new, but noted that one of the “worst things to do is put new pieces at the beginning of the program.”
Nevertheless, Oundjian still tries to bring music that hasn’t been regularly performed over the years by orchestras around the globe, such as Murray Schafer, whose music was performed this week in Toronto.
For this reason, Oundjian said he has been accused of “ghettoizing new music.” He added that recording companies don’t want to record “the same old symphonies like Brahms’ Symphony No. 1,” and actually try to find pieces hat have never been performed before.
However, when asked why the TSO doesn’t play more new classical music, Oundjian truthfully responded: “We would be bankrupt if we played new composers’ music.”
The TSO, though, will be recording Vaughn Williams’ Symphony No. 4 before traveling to New York City to perform at Carnegie Hall for the second time on Mar. 26.
Another technique that has worked for the TSO is the TSO Soundcheck. The program, which was introduced in 2004, charges $14 for tickets to those between the ages of 15 and 35. “We have 17,000 active members.” Plus the TSO has played for 120,000 kids in Toronto and more across the province of Ontario.
Oundjian jokingly said that musicians who play chamber music say they perform “for retired people and their parents.”
How does he conduct? How did he transition from violin to conductor?
An audience member asked Oundjian what kind of qualities he seeks when he looks for a concertmaster. Oundjian seeks those who are musically talented, tactful, have good judgment, communicative and is able to stimulate everyone.
Toronto Symphony Orchestra music director Peter Oundjian.
Toronto Symphony Orchestra music director Peter Oundjian.
But Oundjian noted that he wants everyone to be a concertmaster and wants the entire orchestra to collaborate in one form or another. He doesn’t want his musicians to just sit there without providing any input.
Oundjian admits he is very demanding, but he is kind about. “Kindness is very underrated in this world.” During rehearsals, Oundjian said he keeps morale high by showing respect to the musicians and not be as stern as conductors were made out to be during the 19th century.
After being diagnosed with focal dystonia in his left hand, Oundjian decided to transition his skills into conducting. Instead of trying to “use 70 percent” of his talent, he quit playing the violin altogether.
What is he listening to? Who inspired him the most?
Due to his busy schedule, Oundjian said he is unable to listen to classical music for pure pleasure, but rather for work. At the present moment, Oundjian said he stares at 150 pages of music composed by Murray Schafer because it has never been played before.
Despite the paucity of pleasure, Oundjian was inspired by piano music, including Franz Schubert and Ludwig Van Beethoven’s sonatas, because of the “purity of the piano.”
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