The Scottish Chamber Orchestra gives complete performances of Cosi fan tutte tomorrow and Friday, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra delivered its first instalments of Tristan und Isolde last week. But even alongside these heavyweight programmes, it's the Royal Scottish National Orchestra's opening night of Glinka, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich's 11th Symphony that's the big event on Scotland's classical calendar.
Why? In his own words, there's "a new kid in town". Tomorrow Peter Oundjian conducts the RSNO for the first time as its new music director. We've had fleeting visits from him as a guest conductor and music-director designate. Now the real work begins: the long-term technical building blocks, the search for that crucial, mysterious chemistry between conductor, orchestra and audience.
Posters have been up all over Glasgow for months: the bright smile, trim figure, crisp concert gear and bushy grey crop. A quick skim of his biography tells you Oundjian was born in Canada to an Armenian father and a mother from Newcastle; his family returned to England when he was five and he was educated there; his siblings are Olympic skaters and sailors, and his cousin is Eric Idle. Oundjian's first career was as a violinist, and a rather good one at that: he led the Tokyo String Quartet for 14 years before developing repetitive strain injury and turning his attention to conducting. He's been music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra since 2004 and will juggle that role and others alongside his post in Scotland.
In person Oundjian is just as the pictures show him. We meet late on Monday afternoon; he's flown in on a red-eye that morning, attended a full day of meetings and is still suave and chipper. He's cheerful with our photographer – "I've spent a lot of hours in front of the camera after so many years," he says. His accent is classic mid-Atlantic: English at its core, softened by years in the US and Canada (he tellingly pronounces 'Toronto' like a local, a kind of slurred Trna). Oundjian seems, above all, a nice guy. He's courteous and laughs easily. He reciprocates my questions in a way most interviewees would never think to do.
The horror of losing muscle control in the hands would break the spirit of many musicians. Over the course of our conversation Oundjian does refer to the experience as "terrifying" and acknowledges friends and colleagues whose advice helped him through. He talks about various difficult aspects of his career, but always with a breezy silver lining. For example, he doesn't sleep well. "My body is quite used to sleeping sporadically," he says – and that's a handy way of operating for someone who spends his life travelling. "The mind operates quite well in the middle of the night. There's nothing to interrupt it. Nocturnal thoughts can be a bit alarming -" He laughs. "So then you just go back to sleep." Problem solved.
Or there was the time when he found himself performing Ravel's String Quartet for the 100th time. "I was so tired. It was a little town in Iowa, the last place I wanted to be. But then I noticed a woman in the second row looking at us with such anticipation. I can still see her face. She'd probably been looking forward to this concert for a year. She'd probably driven 150 miles to get there from some lonely farm. My attitude turned a complete 180 in that moment."
During his time with the Tokyos, Oundjian performed in 130 cities a year. "After 14 years you've really seen the world. You'd get very homesick if you didn't make yourself feel at home wherever you found yourself. Now I feel comfortable pretty much anywhere." But he does have a "special feel" for the UK, especially Scotland: his grandfather was Scottish – a Sanderson – but died when his mother was eight. "When I left England at the age of 19 I made New York my home. I married a girl from there, my kids are American. I lost my connection with the UK and started redeveloping my connection with Canada. So when I started coming to conduct in Scotland it felt right. There was a magnetism for me to fill the void I'd left at 19."
If Oundjian feels comfortable working in most countries, the same is true when it comes to music. He is, by admission, a generalist. I ask whether there's any particular repertoire he'd like to develop with the RSNO. Not really, he says, and describes his programming as "a good eclectic balance that challenges listeners to hear new things but also gives spontaneous renditions of the classics." What repertoire does he feel most at home with himself? "The cheap answer is that old cliché: the piece I like most is the piece I'm playing at the moment. To be honest I don't really know. I've played so much music all my life."
He goes on to describe Brahms as "a composer whose language I adore beyond description. But I could say the same about Beethoven and Mozart and Haydn and Shostakovich and Bartók and Janácek - We're doing some American music with the orchestra this year," (two all-American programmes include a pops selection of Gershwin, Barber, Copland, Bernstein and Adams) "and some Vaughan Williams" (The Lark Ascending and Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis).
He promises more contemporary music in forthcoming seasons, and more rarities. "But we have to find ways of programming this music so people feel comfortable." What audiences can be assured of when they buy an RSNO ticket, he says, is "commitment, emotional engagement, a lot of excitement, something that's visceral." Fine goals, but surely applicable to every orchestra. Does it matter? Can a conductor stand out as an all-rounder? That's what we'll begin to find out this week and over the course of this season. Certainly Oundjian radiates optimism about the relationship he's taken on. "This orchestra has a fantastic character," he says. "There's no barrier between the podium and the musicians." That much is probably helped by the fact he was a musician for so long, but the power shift can be tricky.
Still, Oundjian starts his new job keen to be a buddy rather than a boss. "In rehearsals I've taken to saying things like: 'That series of chords needs a bit of work so I'll leave it with you'. Why should I single out an individual in front of 100 colleagues and tell them they're messing up? Like in life, I figure out how I'd like to be treated if I was one of the musicians. Of course I've got to demand the results. But with sensitivity."
Peter Oundjian conducts Shostakovich at Music Hall, Aberdeen, tomorrow; Usher Hall, Edinburgh, on Friday; and Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Saturday.
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