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Interview: Peter Oundjian, violinist and conductor

Though Stéphane Denève is sadly stepping down as director and conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, his successor Peter Oundjian is well qualified to bring stability and imagination to these important roles

• Oundjian has worked with many orchestras, as well as Monty Python's Eric Idle

PETER Oundjian's career has been influenced more by coincidence than any plan. The 55-year-old British-Canadian conductor's decision to become a musician, rather than a footballer, was forced upon him as a 16-year-old at England's prestigious Charterhouse School, when a serious cartilage injury ruled out a sporting career.

"Till then I was more interested in playing for Chelsea than playing the violin," says Oundjian, who then went on to become the principal violinist of the Tokyo Quartet. The fact that sporting genes run in the family is borne out by his brother Haig's successful career as an international figure skater.

So what forced yet another change of direction for Oundjian, leading to guest conductor posts with the Detroit and Colorado Symphony Orchestras, his current musical directorship of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) and, ultimately, to last week's welcome announcement that he is to succeed Stphane Denve as chief conductor and music director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in 2012? Once again, painful circumstances had a part to play.

In 1995, after 15 years leading the Tokyo Quartet, Oundjian developed the repetitive strain condition, "focal dystonia", which led to him resigning from the quartet and turning to a new career as a conductor.

"The situation wasn't as bad as it might seem," he explains. "I was 39 and had played 2000 concerts as a violinist. I had had a wonderful career with the quartet. And anyway, I had always been interested in becoming a conductor. I saw it as a case of one door closing and another opening."

As a violin student at New York's Julliard School, Oundjian had already been encouraged to take up the baton by no less a figure than Herbert von Karajan.

"I was 20 and leading the Julliard orchestra, when the great man turned to me during a rehearsal of Brahms' First Symphony and said, 'Do you conduct?' I said I did a bit. He made me direct the slow movement and then said that if I wanted to conduct I certainly had the hands for it."

"I still use the rehearsal techniques I picked up from him," Oundjian reveals. "Sure, he was a petrifying presence, but mostly I remember how very powerful and imposing he was, and how warm and communicative his eyes were."

Oundjian communicates effectively in his own way, as anyone who saw his appearance last season with the RSNO will recall.Not only did he inspire a magnificent performance of the hyper-expressive Fourth Symphony by another Charterhouse boy, Vaughan Williams, but he struck up an immediate rapport, by chatting to the audience, that will clearly go down well among RSNO regulars when he settles into his permanent post.

In Toronto, where he has been musical director of the TSO since 2004 - and where he is held largely responsible for the orchestra's recent revival from near bankruptcy - he is actively involved with initiatives to take classical music to young people.

"We have a regular programme called Sound Check, which is interest-driven and encourages young people to engage with us through blog activity and even parties," Oundjian explains. "I go to the parties and meet them; they know who I am. We currently have 40,000 people registered."

Indeed, Oundjian has never been frightened to play the popular hand. Look him up on YouTube and you'll find him, along with his Tokyo Quartet colleagues, on an episode of Sesame Street giving as good as he gets from the troublesome Oscar the Grouch.

And how on Earth did he get involved in an oratorio version of Monty Python's Life of Brian called Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy)?

"That was all my cousin's fault," he says, referring to his close family link to the most musical Python, Eric Idle. "We had been speaking about doing something on stage for years, and I was figuring out how to do that without ruining my career. There was always the possibility that I might end up shocking my regular audience.

"However, Eric came to me with the idea that Life of Brian would never work as a musical, but would make a wonderful oratorio. He's one of the funniest people alive, and he already had me giggling at the mere thought of it. He was a good choral singer when he was at Cambridge, so he knew what he was doing. We did it with Spamalot composer John DuPrez, I had some say in how it as put together, and it was a huge success. We even made a DVD of it at the Royal Albert Hall."

So Oundjian, is happy to play the popular hand when the right opportunity presents itself. But don't be fooled by the easy, personable and seemingly ego-less demeanour; nor by a penchant for eclectic programming, ranging from a fondness for Mozart (he directed the Philadelphia Orchestra's Absolutely Mozart Festival for a number of years) to music by the newest kids on the block, and a hint that Mahler and Bruckner are high on his RSNO wish list.

As one RSNO player told me last week, "Oundjian is very thorough and a very safe pair of hands. He's also the first string player we've had as a conductor since Walter Weller". Weller invariably transforms the RSNO string body whenever he gets control of it; Oundjian could easily do the same when he gets down to moulding his own distinctive RSNO sound.

Already he senses an affinity with the players. "They are very passionate and committed with what they do.I don't want to speculate at this point. I have taken the position and agreed to go forward on that, but my next couple of visits will be very important in seeing what is possible," he says. These already involve performances in April of Brahms, Grieg and Christopher Rouse, and of Mozart and Martinu next season.

"The most important thing as the music director of an orchestra is to make the community trust you," says Oundjian.

With the orchestra in the throes of finding a replacement for Seattle-bound chief executive Simon Woods, and preparing to move to new purpose-built offices at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, that kind of stability will be invaluable.

 
 
 

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