As a thin winter light filters into his Roy Thomson Hall studio, Peter Oundjian reflects on being named music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, back in January, 2003. He must be surprised that we’re about to talk about his 10th season on the job, I suggest, I guess a bit indelicately. And he laughs. “Well put,” he says. “It creeps up on you.”
Oundjian and the TSO have just announced the programming and artists they will be presenting next year, in their 2013-14 season. And true to Oundjian’s form, the season is careful and balanced. Hidden among the requisite Beethoven symphonies and Brahms concertos are a number of more challenging musical gems, carefully set, but prominent nonetheless. We’ll hear three Mahler symphonies next year, conducted by Kent Nagano, Andrew Davis and Edward Gardner. Famed Canadian pianist Janina Fialkowska will be playing the concerto of 20th-century composer Witold Lutoslawski. Contemporary Scottish composer James MacMillan’s music makes two appearances during the season. The Third Symphony of former composer-in-residence Gary Kulesha is on the program. In years past, a lot of this kind of programming would have been confined to the TSO’s annual New Creations Festival in March. Next year, it’s exposed in regular concerts, weighted equally with all other repertoire.
This careful packaging of the known and unknown, the safe and the challenging, is one of the hallmarks of the season. “People want to hear the familiar they love,” Oundjian tells me, “ but not all night. You can dig your own grave if you play it too safe. You’ve got to have colour and imagination.” On the other hand, the economics of the modern symphony are ruthless. “You get your programming wrong, you lose a fortune in a week.” Navigating between the Scylla of “dig your own grave” safety and the Charybdis of “lose a fortune in a week” mistakes is the business of the modern symphony music director.
One of the ways through this dilemma is the engagement of star performers, and the TSO has a raft of them in 2013-14. Canadian-born, internationally famous Angela Hewitt returns to the orchestra after a long absence, with the Beethoven Emperor piano concerto in March. Soprano Sondra Radvanofsky will undoubtedly thrill with her rendition of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs in June. Pianist Louis Lortie will return, performing and conducting Mozart in early 2014. Lang Lang, maybe the world’s most famous keyboard artist, kicks off the season with two Mozart piano concertos new to his repertoire. And we will have visits by other great international artists – pianists Hélène Grimaud and Emanuel Ax playing Brahms concertos 1 and 2; cellist Alisa Weilerstein with the Elgar cello concerto; violinist Itzhak Perlman playing Tchaikovsky.
And perhaps the most interesting guest of all, contemporary American composer John Adams, will be featured conducting his own works during the March, 2014, New Creations Festival, which also includes commissioned pieces from Canadian composers Brian Current and Kevin Lau. “We live in an exciting time,” Oundjian says. “When I was growing up, new music was very austere and very dense. Today, the new repertoire is less intimidating, playing with new colours, rediscovering forms of tonality. You can be a bit more daring.”
Although daring is not quite the word I would choose to describe the TSO’s 2013-14 season, there is no doubt that, a decade into his tenure, Oundjian is providing his audiences with a richer, more varied palette. And, for him, it’s not just about programming, it’s about performance as well. He notes, with a bit of surprise in his voice, that he’s hired over 30 players for the orchestra during his tenure. “If I have a legacy, I want it to be that I solidified things for the future of this orchestra. We’re still on our way, but the orchestra has a certain pride about its performances. That’s central to the survival of the great symphony orchestras, in my opinion. When I was younger, orchestras often sleep-walked their way through performances, especially of familiar material. We can’t do that any more. We have too much competition in the entertainment field." In 2013-14, the TSO has prepared a season to keep that competition at bay.