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Heading off in a new direction

WE have much to learn about Peter Oundjian, music director-designate of the RSNO, who will take up his new post at the end of next season in succession to Stephane Deneve.

I have a strong instinct that the vast majority of the near-capacity audiences he attracted in Scotland last week will agree, following the superb performance and interpretation of Brahms’s Third Symphony he drew from the orchestra, that in this repertoire at least, the RSNO is passing into confident, and decisive hands.

There were a few surprises last week at our first meeting and formal interview, not least the fact that he came out with what amounted more or less to a mission statement: new music directors tend to be cautious in their first public utterances.

“There are things Stephane has done with this orchestra that are wonderful, because he’s got a tremendous imagination and sense of colour,” he said. “It’s interesting that they’ve chosen to have a relationship with me, because I’m somewhat at the other end of the spectrum in many ways. I look at things more from the point of view of detail.

“Stephane is fantastic at the big picture; and we all want to be that. But I’m looking forward to working with a different kind of repertoire. That’s what interesting about becoming a music director.”

For his single visit next season he will couple the darkness of Mozart’s Requiem with the tang of Martinu, whose Sixth Symphony Oudjian feels is a masterpiece.

And thereafter, when he assumes his post, he probably won’t do much French music, of which there will be saturation coverage from Deneve next season; he probably won’t do Sibelius (though he doesn’t say why); but he is obsessed with the music of Bruckner, so stand by for that.

What he does intend to do is get right into the engine room of the orchestra itself. He loved working with them last week; he is impressed by what he perceived as the sense of “communication and mutual respect” he witnessed, and by how quick they were in taking on board and delivering what he asked them to do.

“And my goal is to create even more of a conversational experience within the orchestra in a different way from Stephane. In the string department I want to have a sense of automatically absolute brilliant ensemble. We have to have fine control. We have to work everything to the finest detail, so the bow strokes are really matched. How are you going to use the bow? How are we going to flow forward? How do we make a warm sound?

“We have to have a feeling of internal rhythm. We need to encourage a sense of rhythmic discipline. We need to work with technique and musicianship at the same time. And then we can get the freedom that comes from discipline.”

This is a pretty audacious start, and might get a few backs up. But we heard early results in that Brahms last weekend; and Oundjian was deeply impressed with how quickly the RSNO gave him what he wanted over the course of just a few rehearsals.

And remember, these serious words about the strings come from a man who, in his day, was a renowned violinist and, as leader of the Tokyo String Quartet, a world-famous one.

But that was not the career to which young Peter Oundjian initially aspired. Born in Toronto to an Armenian father, and the youngest of five brothers, Oundjian was brought up in England. His grandfather was Scottish (Sanderson) and his mother grew up in Jarrow. (We interrupt our interview briefly and trade tales in broad Tyneside accents, as Jarrow is my own home town; Oundjian is sensationally authentic.)

All the Oudjian brothers were passionate about either sport or music. One of his brothers was in the British champion skating team in the John Curry era. Young Peter was obsessed with both. He was sent to Charterhouse School, where he worked with Benjamin Britten (and his treble voice is enshrined in the chorus that sang on Britten’s recordings of his Friday Afternoon Songs and the opera Midsummer Night’s Dream.

But he was also an avid football player, “fanatically obsessed” with wanting to play for Chelsea. He must have been good, as the club sent a scout along to the school to assess him. Alas, Oundjian tore a cartilage in his knee, and that was one potential career down the plughole. “Chelsea survived without me.”

He continued at school, going to London once a week for violin lessons, and then on to the Royal College of Music, where he swept the board for prizes. And there he met the 27-year-old superstar violinist Pinchas Zukerman, who told him he had to go New York to study. He also met Itzthak Perlman. “So I went to New York in 1975 knowing my two heroes: it just made you practise.”

He went to Juilliard to study violin and conducting. There, aged 20, he met one Herbert von Karajan, who assessed him. “He made me stand in front of an orchestra and demonstrate how less can be more”. Karajan also told Oundjian that he should think seriously about pursuing conducting, which the violinist filed away for future reference.

Life, at that time, was about the violin, and Oundjian was giving recitals and playing concertos. Then, just as he was graduating from Juilliard, a life-changing moment burst on him: he was invited to join the Tokyo String Quartet as its first violinist and leader. “This one I couldn’t turn down. So quite suddenly I embarked on this incredible 14-year career of 135 concerts a year, the world over; and that was what I did, along with teaching at Yale, which I loved.” He was set for life.

In the late 1980s, he began to feel that “something funny” was going on with his left hand. “There was a lack of control. I would ask my fingers to do certain things and they would go almost into a spasm. My fingers would also descend when I hadn’t asked them to descend.”

He had focal dystonia, and by 1994, life was utter hell. “By then, it was like suicide walking on stage: I had no idea what was going to happen next. The expectation of the Tokyo Quartet was not only of a great concert but of a perfect concert; and I just couldn’t put myself through it any longer. I’d had enough.”

Did the experience hammer him psychologically? “No; I’m a glass half-full guy. I was 39, I had played over 2000 concerts, I had made 35 CDs. Things could be a lot worse. I got that from my mother: She was tough,” he said. “Fear nothing was her philosophy; so I saw it as an opportunity.”

Close friends rallied. Oundjian had done a lot of work with Andre Previn, who helped prepare him for life at the front of the orchestra, got him a good manager, and gave him his first gig, sharing the podium.

And from there he has worked steadily in America, taking his time. He’s 55. “I’m in no rush. A lot of people are thrust on to major podiums too soon. We need to be in a state of calm to do this job.” His first major post was with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, where he is now in his sixth season, and where he is credited with hauling that orchestra back from the brink of financial and artistic bankruptcy, and supervising what has been called its rebirth.

His next step is the RSNO. He’s ready, and, to judge from the outstanding music- making we heard from them in Brahms Three last weekend, so are they.

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