TSO conductor to take baton to Israel

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra. SIAN RICHARDS PHOTO

Peter Oundjian has played a dynamic role in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. In 2004, after several difficult years of dwindling audiences and patrons, the Toronto-born conductor stepped in to resurrect the TSO with innovative programming, brand new recordings and world tours. Under his blazing baton, the orchestra saw extensive audience growth and multiple sold-out performances.

Now, with the 150th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation around the corner, Oundjian has decided to take the orchestra on yet another journey, sharing his Canadian spirit and positive energy with the home of his greatest mentor, Itzhak Perlman: Israel.

While Oundjian’s British accent (due to his ancestry and education) can be deceiving, the brilliant conductor is first and foremost Canadian. “Well, I like ice hockey, which is a prerequisite to being Canadian,” Oundjian jokes.

If his love for hockey hadn’t given it away, Oundjian’s complex, yet committed journey with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra – one that is sadly coming to an end this year – certainly would.

Oundjian says he was inspired to become a conductor when he met Herbert von Karajan when he was 20. Three days of master classes with the elusive Austrian conductor had an enormous impact on the young violinist, who admits that it took a full 19 years after that encounter to turn to conducting exclusively. “My desire to be a violinist was very strong,” he states firmly.

“As a violinist,” Oundjian shares, “one often feels gratitude for what one does. You can’t expect that as a conductor,” he says, possibly explaining the delayed transition.

Nonetheless, whether wielding a bow or waving a baton, music was embedded in Oundjian’s genes. “My sister is an excellent pianist who won far more prizes than I ever did,” he recollects. Oundjian tried to follow in her footsteps, but knew from a very young age that the piano was not for him.

In solidifying his path in strings, Israel would become an important influence in Oundjian’s life through his apprenticeship under the great Israeli-American violinist Itzhak Perlman. “Perlman was my teacher, but also a source of enormous inspiration throughout my life,” Oundjian says.

In the field of conducting, Oundjian has narrowed down his inspirations to two absolute favourites: Claudio Abbado and Carlos Kleiber. However, in terms of compositions, the music of the late Canadian composer Jacques Hétu has always spoken powerfully to him.

Even so, something cultural in Perlman’s ongoing influence resonated inside Oundjian, resurfacing on the cusp of July 1, 2017. In conjunction with Canada’s 150th birthday, the conductor could think of no better way than to celebrate the milestone with a European and Israel-wide tour.

“It definitely felt to me that the anniversary called for significant events,” Oundjian says. “Coming to Israel and creating a cultural exchange for our two countries was a very important goal of mine.”

This is not Oundjian’s first visit to the Holy Land. He first came to Israel in 1988 to perform a Beethoven quartet cycle in the Henry Crown Symphony Hall as first violinist of the Tokyo String Quartet. He returned in 2012, this time as a conductor with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. However, the upcoming May 2017 concerts in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem will be Oundjian’s first with the TSO in Israel.

“I’m excited about the entire experience of sharing music with our friends in Israel and witnessing the excitement for so many of the members of the TSO who have never visited,” Oundjian explains with evident eagerness.

The conductor promises great surprises for Israeli audiences, but agrees to give a glimpse of the program, which features Israeli violinist Maxim Vengerov and balances Canadian compositions with classic symphonies.

“We begin with a new piece called Iris by Canadian composer Jordan Pal. It is a very original piece that explores many beautiful orchestral colours. The Brahms violin concerto is among my absolute favourite pieces of all time, and nobody I know would deny that it is a true gem of the repertoire. Dvorák [Symphony No. 7] is for me his greatest symphony. Dark, dramatic and packed with continuous and glorious melodic ideas, this symphony truly launched Dvorák onto the stages of the world after its premiere in London.”

After announcing his departure from the TSO a year ago, Oundjian has left no time to dwell. He believes in forward motion, revealing the many exciting options that lie ahead.

“I look forward to continuing to share my love for music with musicians and listeners,” he says.

The TSO will perform in Jerusalem on May 11, and Tel Aviv on May 13. Not connected to this, but worth mentioning, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Zubin Mehta, will perform in Toronto on Oct. 28 at Roy Thomson Hall.