He had carved out a distinguished career as the first violinist of the acclaimed Tokyo String Quartet. But focal dystonia, a repetitive stress condition, in his left hand increasingly hampered the intricate motor skills needed to finger the violin.
Oundjian, who had also studied conducting, was contemplating a shift to that discipline and few were more supportive of the move than André Previn, the multiple Oscar and Grammy Award-winning conductor, arranger, pianist and composer who was then artistic adviser to the Caramoor International Music Festival in Katonah. It was a place familiar to Oundjian, who had played there with the quartet many times from 1981 to 1994.
“He said, ‘Come out to the house. We’ll talk,’” Oundjian remembers of the invite to Previn’s Bedford home.
They did — for hours. “He said, ‘I want you to conduct three pieces at Caramoor’s 50th anniversary concert,’” Oundjian recalls. “I looked at him as if he were nuts.”
Oundjian not only took to the podium for that July 15, 1995 concert, but went on to serve as Caramoor’s artistic director from 1997 to 2003 and artistic adviser and principal conductor from 2004 to 2007.
His conducting résumé has also become an equally impressive travelogue. Recently, he led the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, of which he’s been music director since 2004, on a tour of Europe, with a sold-out performance at The Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and the first by a North American orchestra at Reykjavik’s Harpa concert hall.
As music director of The Royal Scottish National Orchestra (since 2012), he went to China.
“I’ve been to places all over the world,” Oundjian says. “It’s been a dream ride.”
One that continues as he returns to the podium of Caramoor’s Venetian Theater June 20 to lead the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in a new work by Christopher Theofanidis before teaming with The Collegiate Chorale and soloists Jennifer Check, Jennifer Feinstein, Noah Baetge and Jeffrey Beruan for Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125.
Oundjian is a dream interview, as intelligent and expressive in conversation as he is in performance. As someone who’s played Beethoven hundreds of times, he understands that the Ninth, with its “Ode to Joy,” is the kind of classic that musicians and music lovers think they know even when they don’t.
“It’s very fascinating to observe the change of approach to the symphony,” he muses. “I grew up in the era of large symphony orchestras for (Beethoven predecessors) Haydn and Mozart, with modern techniques — lots of vibrato, big sound.
“But over the years, there’s been a move to authentic sound and a change in the way we feel about expressivity. It’s a different approach with a kind of clarity of expression, an inner energy that was lacking before.”
While contemporary performances of Classical and early Romantic works have benefited from historical study, Oundjian says he does not believe in slavish attempts to recreate the past.
“The slow movement in the Ninth had gotten so slow that you lost the melody,” he says. “Then I started looking at the Beethoven Ninth metronome markings and realized he was utterly deaf by that time, sadly.”
The challenge of the Ninth is compounded by it being a vocal work as much as an orchestral one.
“I’ve always loved the human voice,” says Oundjian, who began as a singer (a boy soprano in the Westminster Abbey Choir no less) before concentrating on the violin. “It gives me the greatest joy to work with singers, especially in oratorio.”
Another love — new music. For Caramoor’s 70th anniversary — which coincides with Oundjian’s 20th as a conductor — Theofanidis has written what Oundjian describes as “an upbeat, celebratory piece.
“The challenge of new music is that it’s undervalued,” adds Oundjian, whose 11-year-old New Creations Festival at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is now an audience favorite. “When I was coming up, you couldn’t write anything with a melody. It had to be dissonant. Nowadays, it can be about so much more.”
But whether music is melodic or atonal, from five centuries or five minutes ago, the intention is the same — “to get at the heart of the music with clear, crisp gestures” while remembering that all music is contemporary at some time or another.
“If we didn’t support contemporary music,” Oundjian says, “we wouldn’t have music.”
Born in Toronto, Oundjian grew up in England where he attended the Charterhouse School and the Royal College of Music. (He would later study at The Juilliard School in Manhattan with Itzhak Perlman and Dorothy DeLay among others.) His British-Armenian family is one of performers and athletes. One cousin is Eric Idle of “Monty Python” fame. A nephew is Ben Smith of the NHL’s San Jose Sharks.
Being Canadian by birth and with a pro hockey-playing nephew, the conductor is a big hockey fan.
“In Canada, they say there are three seasons — summer, hockey and hockey. I grew up playing soccer, and hockey is soccer on steroids.”
But he also enjoys participating in sports as well as watching them. He plays tennis, goes kayaking and water skis. (Interestingly, he says, neither these nor his pianism are affected by his focal dystonia, only playing the violin, which he returned to briefly when Perlman jovially prodded him to perform the Bach Double Violin Concerto with him for the TSO’s 90th anniversary.)
Sports along with reading are key to successful travel for Oundjian, who keeps his baton and a spare in his carry-on. So is eating sensibly.
When he’s not on the road or in the air, Oundjian is on the ground at his home of 30 years in Weston, which he shares with wife Nadine. (Their daughter is immersed in film and theater in Montreal. Their son, “a wonderful singer-guitarist,” his father says, is finishing up at Skidmore College.)
Nadine teaches kindergarten and first grade at The Long Ridge School in Stamford. Her husband, a visiting professor at Yale School of Music, is proud of his wife’s dedication to a field that he says is key to family.
And to making beautiful music throughout your life.
MUSIC IN THE WOODS
Caramoor’s 70th opening night concert begins at 8:30 p.m. in the Venetian Theater. Tickets range from $20 to $110. For tickets, call 914-232-1252.
Opening night gala tickets include a pre-performance cocktail reception and dinner, premium seating and a post-performance party with dessert, cocktails and dancing with the artists. For reservations, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 914-232-1492.
The festival — which also features the American Roots Festival (June 27 and July 10); a special Fourth of July concert; opera (July 11 and 25) and the Caramoor Jazz Festival (July 18 with Wynton Marsalis and 24) — concludes Aug. 2 with pianist and 2015 artist-in-residence “Hélène Grimaud teaming with conductor Pablo Heras Casado for a program of Brahms and Tchaikovsky.
Caramoor is on Girdle Ridge Road in Katonah.