For the past year, Peter Oundjian has been pulling double duty as the musical director for both the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Royal National Orchestra in Scotland. The 2014-15 season marks his 10-year anniversary with the former, where he oversaw record-breaking attendance. Here, the accomplished musician and conductor shares some of the secrets to his success – including why you should never look at an e-mail twice
Why put off to tomorrow what you can do now
The best advice of my life came from my mother. Three simple words: do it now. I find we are constantly finding reasons to procrastinate. I love that joke of, “Why put off to tomorrow what you could put off to the day after tomorrow?” We all identify with that, but it’s invariably more work to put something off than it is to do it right away. They always say that the best administrator only touches a piece of paper once. Remember the Peanuts cartoon? It had the “Out box,” which had two or three things in it, the “In box,” which had a whole bunch of things, and then a third box with paper piled up to the ceiling titled, “Give me a break.” That “give me a break” stuff still takes up space in your head. In my case, it’s about dealing with the endless stream of e-mails and requests. People are always wanting to set up meetings and I’ll say, “No, let’s just take two minutes and do this right now.”
Tonight’s the night (and so is tomorrow)
I played in a string quartet for many years and one of the biggest challenges was figuring out how to bring fresh energy to pieces that I’d done 50 or a 100 times. It’s really interesting to do a 135 concerts a year, travel to all of these different places and realize that every night is “the” night. For the people who bought the ticket, that is the night, so it has to be the night for you, too. For me it starts in the silence before the music starts, you create the aura, you bring back to life the world of that particular piece, that agonizing world of Tchaikovsky and it has absolutely nothing to do with the performance you did the night before. The score looks the same and the music sounds the same, but the energy is completely fresh. It has to be – otherwise you could just push a button and get it again. It’s like, just because I’ve eaten smoked salmon or gelato so many times in my life doesn’t mean I don’t look forward to it the next time. Especially because sometimes there’s just that little extra something in the salmon and it’s just wow – what a treat. Humans are addicted to a certain amount of tradition. Why would you go to see King Lear? It’s kind of a ridiculous question when you think about it. Why would you not?
Make positive your default position
The thing that keeps me stimulated the most is the idea of passing on positive energy to others. In the workplace, or anywhere, you have a choice of bringing positive energy, no energy or negative energy. For me, the first is the only choice. I’m the fifth child and my parents used to say, “Peter came along to make us all laugh.” I’m not actually that funny – my cousin [English comedian Eric Idle] is a lot funnier. What my parents meant is that I try to make people happy. Being positive also helps me to maintain my schedule. There are times when you look at the week ahead and think, “What fool agreed to this?” The key is to just enjoy it and try to hold onto the knowledge that you’re the one who’s being asked to do these things. This is a good thing.
How to co-opt inspiration
I recently had a wonderful week in Berlin with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. We were doing The Planets [by Gustav Holst], which is a piece that a lot of orchestras play very often, but that is not the case necessarily in Germany and it certainly wasn’t the case with this orchestra. Originally, I wasn’t so excited – how many times have I done The Planets? – but then taking them through the new discovery turned out to be a great experience. It was really inspiring. It’s the same reason that I’m passionate about education. I probably spend a lot more time working with young people than most conductors. Getting to see these musicians experience things for the first time is just so gratifying. They’re obviously talented otherwise they wouldn’t be at Julliard or Yale, but they’ve never done it together before and when they find that magic they are so wonderfully wide-eyed.
There’s more than musical meat and potatoes
We always have to maintain the positive assumption that people do have curiosity – that we don’t really want to have meat and potatoes every night. It’s also true to say that people in my position (we who are responsible for programming) have a duty to inspire a certain amount of curiosity, to not always just hand over the obvious. It’s a delicate balance. You want to challenge audiences, but you also have to get people to come from a business point of view. There is no magic formula: You need really good judgment and a whole lot of luck. Some programs surprised me because I didn’t think they would be popular and they sold incredibly well, and then the exact opposite happens and that’s just as mystifying. Getting people excited about the symphony has become even more difficult with all of the distractions out there. It used to be that you’d sit and read a book, now people’s lives are full of content – everyone’s Facebooking, Facetiming. And they can watch things on YouTube. Part of my job is finding a way to say, “This is extra special, this is way beyond anything you could do at home.”
It’s not just empty gestures
As a conductor, all of my gestures are stimulated entirely by what I feel l need to do to bring that sound out. If anyone ever said, “Oh, he does so many things for effect,” I would want to throw myself off a cliff. That would be the last thing I would want people to perceive, thought I guess there are some conductors who do that. Maybe people don’t agree with the amount of excitement that I find in the music. They might say I’m overdoing something and other people would say I’m underdoing it. That’s the nature of art. My style is entirely driven by my ear and my imagination. Even within the same piece you go from the quietness and introspective of a slow movement to some hugely dramatic finale and you have a completely different personality. Yes, there is some basic technique, but it’s all about serving your interpretation of the music – getting it out of these 90 people in front of you who are creating all of the excitement and magic and colour. It’s such an amazing collaboration.
This interview has been condensed and edited by Courtney Shea.