Music preview: Oundjian bids farewell to RSNO with Mahler's poignant Ninth

You come to the end of a music directorship, and you don't want to feel like you're leaving school.' The Royal Scottish National Orchestra's outgoing Music Director Peter Oundjian is in reflective mood about his imminent departure. 'I don't feel like I'm saying farewell '“ it's simply the end of a six-year period. And I'm handing over to someone we all know and love very much in Thomas SøndergÃ¥rd.'

Peter Oundjian PIC: Jane Barlow
Peter Oundjian PIC: Jane Barlow

Oundjian’s six seasons with the RSNO have gained sometimes mixed reviews. But there’s no doubting the breadth of the music he’s presented – from big choral blockbusters to Bruckner and Mahler symphonies, plus a fair dose of music by his friend and colleague John Adams, also featured among the clutch of recordings Oundjian has made with the orchestra. He’s also been instrumental in re-establishing the RSNO’s live presence internationally, heading a tour of China just months after he took the orchestra’s reins, followed by Spain and Florida. And Oundjian and the band are just back from a whistle-stop tour of packed houses in Austria, Italy, Slovenia and Germany.

Oundjian leaves, however, in performances on Friday and Saturday, with what might seem like a puzzling choice of piece. Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is often viewed as the composer’s bitter, despairing farewell to a life of regret and disappointment. Its finale, in particular, can be seen as a poignant, resigned leave-taking after the turmoil and sarcasm of the music that’s gone before. Is there a message here about the way Oundjian views his time at the RSNO? No: he actually sees the Symphony’s close rather differently.

“Ultimately the end of Mahler’s Ninth is a vision of something very pure and eternal. I think it opens a door to a place of perfect tranquility, a real belief in possibility. And the Symphony should never really end, of course – we should just leave the stage in silence, and people should be with their own thoughts.”

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    The Mahler symphony is actually only one of Oundjian’s departing events. A more intimate offering comes a couple of days earlier, when he joins three RSNO principals – leader Maya Iwabuchi, violist Tom Dunn and trumpeter Christopher Hart – for a lunchtime concert of Mozart and Haydn in the New Auditorium at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, to whose planning he’s glad to have contributed.

    And his very final send-off comes in September, at the BBC Proms, when he conducts the RSNO in Britten’s War Requiem, a piece with a very personal significance. “As a ten- or 11-year-old, I sang under Britten many times on recordings – I was very fortunate to spend time musically with him, so doing the War Requiem in the 100th anniversary year of Wilfred Owen’s death is a great honour.”

    Aside from his work with the RSNO, Oundjian is also departing from his similar post at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, where he’s been at the helm for 14 years. Are the two departures related? “In a way they’re coincidental,” Oundjian says. “I felt it would be good to make a new beginning for myself – I thought of it more as opening new possibilities, and looking at the world in a different way.”

    What are his post-RSNO and post-Toronto plans? “I’m going to be doing a lot of guest conducting across the world. I’ve been a professo r at Yale since 1981, and I’ll be continuing in that role. And I have a lot of charity work that needs to be done – there’s a music school in Armenia I’m trying to devote time to.

    “Philanthropy has always been a big part of my family’s tradition. There are things we don’t talk about a lot, but community is important to me. And actually I have nothing against having a bit more time at home. After a while, you feel that there’s no core to your life.

    “That’s how I’ve felt sometimes. I feel the need to have downtime, just to absorb things, study, and do things for other people who need your attention.”

    Are we back to Oundjian’s vision of the place of perfect tranquility at the close of Mahler’s Ninth? It might just be the ideal work to mark his send-off after all.

    Peter Oundjian conducts the RSNO in Mahler’s Ninth Symphony at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 1 June and at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 2 June. He conducts Britten’s War Requiem at the BBC Proms on 6 September.