‘It’s important to let our ears experience something new,” says guest conductor Peter Oundjian, who leads the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra for the first time this weekend. The “new” piece on Oundjian’s program is the U.S. premiere of British composer Gavin Bryars’ “The Porazzi Fragment,” which is scored for solo strings and will be performed on the orchestra’s historical Golden Age collection of vintage string instruments. Also programmed are Sir Edward Elgar’s expansive Cello Concerto, with soloist Steven Isserlis, and Beethoven’s buoyant Symphony No. 7. Performances take place in Trenton’s War Memorial on Saturday, February 24 and in Newark’s NJPAC Friday, February 23, and Sunday, February 25. Charismatic performer Isserlis is a man of diverse enthusiasms, both musical and non-musical and is the author of two music history books for children, “Why Beethoven Threw the Stew” and “Why Handel Waggled His Wig.”
Programming Bryars’ “Porazzi” was Oundjian’s suggestion. Part of the appeal of the piece for him comes from Oundjian’s sense of ethnic kinship with Bryars. Oundjian was born in Toronto; his family moved to England when he was five. Bryars was born in Yorkshire, England, and summers on the west coast of Canada. “We’re both Canadian Brits,” Oundjian says.
Primarily, however, Oundjian was interested in balancing the musical diet by adding Bryars’ 1999 composition to the Elgar concerto, written at the end of World War I, and the Beethoven Symphony, written in 1812. “Elgar and Beethoven are on the program, and I wanted to do something people didn’t know,” he says. “The concept is interesting and the piece is well-written. There are 21 separate parts, beautifully blended. You hear the instruments more independently than you ordinarily would.” And when those instruments are the Golden Age Collection, Oundjian pays attention. The piece gets its name from the Italian villa where Richard Wagner lived when he wrote the eight-measure theme on which Bryars bases his composition.
While new to the orchestra, Oundjian already knows the Golden Age instruments directly. When he was the first violinist in the Tokyo String Quartet some 25 years ago, the ensemble performed on the instruments in Finland and in Japan. Oundjian lauds the capacity of 18th century instruments to enable present-day musicians to reach new heights of performance. “The old instruments make a difference,” he says in a telephone interview. “Great old instruments have unbelievable possibilities. When you’re given a great instrument, you discover a lot of things about what you can accomplish. You can do things that are impossible with a lesser instrument.”
Still, Oundjian knows that the instrument does not make the player. “If we could wake up one morning and have Placido Domingo’s voice,” he muses, “the question is would we be able to use it well.” He goes on to tell a Jascha Heifetz anecdote that distinguishes between player and instrument: An admirer of the legendary violinist of the last century comes backstage and gushes, “Your violin sounds wonderful.” Heifetz picks up the instrument and puts it to his ear. “Funny,” he says. “I don’t hear anything.”
Oundjian enjoys a good story and can deliver a telling one-liner. Maybe it’s part of his family’s heritage. His cousin, Eric Idle, a member of the Monty Python comedy troupe, wrote the book and lyrics and co-wrote the music for “Spamalot.”
Oundjian was born in 1955, the youngest of five children of an Armenian father and an English mother. His violin studies began at age seven in England. He studied at London’s Royal College of Music before coming to New York’s Juilliard School, where his teachers were Ivan Galamian, Itzhak Perlman, and Dorothy Delay.
As the concertmaster of the Juilliard Orchestra at age 20 in 1976 he attended master classes given by Herbert von Karajan, the Austrian-born conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for 35 years, and one of the world’s most-recorded artists. Unexpectedly, von Karajan asked Oundjian to conduct. “I nearly died,” Oundjian told Colin Eatock of Opus Magazine. After the ordeal was over, von Karajan observed, “You have fine energy in your hands.” The remark stayed with Oundjian while he pursued a career as a violinist.
In 1981 Oundjian became the first non-Japanese member of the Tokyo Quartet, which had been formed at the Juilliard School in 1969. As first violinist of the ensemble, he played in about 2,000 concerts throughout the world with the group.
As the 1990s approached, Oundjian began to notice that the fingers of his left hand, the fingering hand, were losing their agility. He had focal dystonia, a disorder that prevents the fingers from judging their position in space and from responding to messages sent by the brain. In December, 2004, he told the quartet that he would leave in May, 2005.
Preparing to abandon his career as a violinist, Oundjian turned to Andre Previn, then director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and of New York state’s summer Caramoor Festival, and told him that he was interested in conducting. Previn invited Oundjian to lead the Orchestra of St. Luke’s at Caramoor’s opening night.
Oundjian approached his conducting career with caution. He took conducting lessons from Previn and others and had a steep learning curve.
Within three years of his Caramoor debut Oundjian became artistic advisor and principal conductor of the festival. He continues to hold that appointment. Since 2004 he has been music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO), and he has been reappointed to the post until 2012. He was instrumental in saving the TSO from a threatening fiscal disaster, but claims that the rescue was a team effort. The measure of the TSO’s new lease on life is the size of its ticket sales. The orchestra tends to play each of its programs two or three times, Oundjian says. “We have a 2,560 seat hall, and 85% of capacity is the average attendance.”
He guest conducts extensively in the United States and Europe. Since September, 2006, he has been principal guest conductor and artistic advisor to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the former band of Neeme Jarvi, music director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.
“I’m 12 years into my conducting career now,” Oundjian says, “almost as long as I was at the Tokyo.” The focal dystonia has had no impact on his ability to conduct, he says. “Only three fingers of my left hand were affected.”
In addition to conducting, Oundjian teaches violin at Yale University, where the Tokyo Quartet has been in residence since 1976. He lives in Connecticut with his wife, Nadine, an elementary school teacher, and their two children. On rare occasions, in protected circumstances, he plays the violin for others. “I’m playing nothing that anybody wants to hear,” he says. “You have to move on in life.”
Oundjian spent the beginning of his conducting career as the leader of small ensembles. “For the first five years, I probably conducted chamber orchestras or string orchestras about 35 percent of the time,” he says. “A lot of conductors work with small groups at the beginning of their careers. You can focus on pure voices, and learn how to make that work. By the time you get to adding percussion, low brasses, and horn sections, you’ve developed a way of understanding balances. You find out how to listen and adjust, and how to show with your hands what you want.
“With Mahler or Bruckner you need a strong sense of the entire orchestra. Understanding the sound and color of the instruments, as well as knowing what requires balancing is absolutely crucial to the big romantic repertoire.
“We’re always trying to understand what we can do better,” Oundjian says. “Many people say that it’s important to have control over the orchestra. But there’s a difference between that and individual instrumentalists having control. I want individual players to be free, and know what context that freedom will create.”
His long experience as a chamber music performer gives Oundjian’s conducting a particular spin. “Being a chamber musician makes you focus on elements of communication,” he says. “Conductor and musicians share musical values, and that requires open communication. Communication with the audience is the byproduct. As listeners, the audience is sensitive to what’s going on onstage.”
He told Edith Eisler of Strings Magazine: “With every group I conduct, I try to share an idea, to create a specific feeling and character with the very first upbeat. From that moment on I play chamber music with the musicians. I want to feel I’m almost sitting next to and conversing with every single person on the stage. And I think a lot of them know that. When it goes well, it’s very exciting; the spontaneity is incredible.
“The chamber repertoire influences your growth musically and spiritually,” Oundjian says. “When you’re standing on the podium, you can’t hide who you are. You have to communicate what you desire and what truly matters to you. People tell me I do that.”
The Magnificent Seventh, Saturday, February 24, 8 p.m. New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Patriots Theater, War Memorial, Trenton. Peter Oundjian conducts works of Bryars, Elgar, and Beethoven. Steven Isserlis on cello. $20. 800-ALLEGRO.