Peter Oundjian is in the final days of his 14-year tenure as music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and the month’s sendoff – a celebratory lineup of concerts featuring the likes of Emanuel Ax and Christopher Plummer – culminates in three performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (June 28 - June 30), a fitting choice of populism for the Toronto-born conductor.
“Actually, my original idea was to do Beethoven 9 with a massive choir from all over Toronto – a huge community experience,” the 62-year-old Oundjian says, wistfully imagining the rehearsal of various choruses, each 200- to 300-strong, before bringing them together en masse for the famously epic Ode to Joy finale. “My dream was to have the entire hall singing.”
Thrilling as the idea might be, filling Roy Thomson Hall with singers would leave few seats left for an audience, and Oundjian scaled back his sizable concept to what will now be “a beautiful Beethoven 9” with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. “Beethoven being one of the great populists of all time, [the Ninth Symphony] is a totally appropriate way for me to finish up my music directorship.”
If there has been a theme to Oundjian’s time as the TSO’s music director, it could easily be one of community, both surrounding the orchestra and within it. Oundjian has connected the orchestra with its city, fostering partnerships with the Luminato Festival and the Regent Park School of Music. Outside Toronto, Oundjian prioritized the orchestra’s “playing excellently” as he took it on eight international tours; the TSO performed critically acclaimed concerts in Vienna, Prague, Israel and, after a 10-year absence, New York’s Carnegie Hall.
“I wanted to raise people’s awareness of the excellence of the Toronto Symphony,” Oundjian says of the tours. He showed international audiences that Toronto’s is among the world’s great orchestras, while at home promoting a sense of civic pride for the TSO. The philharmonics of Berlin, Vienna and New York hold a special status as cultural symbols in their respective cities, and “that’s what I felt the Toronto Symphony should be to Toronto,” Oundjian adds. “I hope that we’ve moved a few steps closer to that.”
Pressed to name a few highlights of his 14 years at the helm of the TSO, Oundjian indulged.
‘They made me turn pages’
“When James [Ehnes] played, Jan [Lisiecki] was in the audience,” Oundjian recalls of his collaboration with some of his favourite fellow Canadian artists. “They played an encore, where Jan and James played on the piano, four hands. It was absolutely incredible. James is a phenomenal violinist and also an extremely fine pianist.” Said Oundjian, no innocent bystander to the impromptu duet: “They made me turn pages for this Dvorak Slavonic Dance.”
’It was so complicated!’
“When you’re doing brand-new music, which we did every year for a couple of weeks with the New Creations Festival, sometimes you have to do something which is incredibly challenging, really difficult to learn.” Oundjian remembers a particular challenge courtesy of pianist Emanuel Ax, who brought to the Festival Melinda Wagner’s piano concerto, Extremity of Sky. “He said, ‘Oh, it’s very straightforward.’ It was so complicated!”
“Pushed to the limits” as he was, Oundjian survived, and so has his friendship with Ax. When we spoke, Oundjian was en route to host Ax for dinner (on the menu: baked cod with mushroom pasta).
’And nobody played’
“There was a concert, very early on, when we were doing Debussy’s La mer,” Oundjian recalls, “and I gave a sign to one of the sections, and nobody played. And I have no idea why, to this day. You lose a few weeks off your life when that happens.”
‘The most tender, glorious, magnificent, expressive music’
“Doing all those grand symphonies by Mahler” was a significant item on Oundjian’s conducting wish list and it’s one he checked off during his time with the TSO. “The big Bruckner symphonies as well, which I love.” If he had to choose a favourite, Oundjian admits, “I am an enormous sucker” for Mahler’s Symphony No. 3.
“It might be that the last movement to Mahler 3 is the most tender, glorious, magnificent, expressive music that one could ever imagine.” Oundjian adds, as a reminder of his roots as a violinist: “It also happens to be inspired by the slow movement of Beethoven’s last string quartet, one of the great pieces of art known to man.”
And does he have pieces he’d be happy never to conduct again? “Yes, but I’m not going to tell you!”