My Path to the Podium

July 4, 2019

by Peter Oundjian

The dressing rooms in the Royal Albert Hall are underneath the chorus seats at the back of the stage. This makes for a unique approach to the stage for performers, a gladiator-style ascent from beneath the stage level. Last September, when I emerged onto that stage with 6,000 people in attendance for a performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem as part of the 2018 BBC Proms, I was inundated with a sense of pride and privilege. It is one of the greatest moments of my life. Three extraordinary soloists, three choirs and two orchestras — over 400 performers in total — gave a performance of that masterpiece that will always remain fresh in my mind.

Now, flashback to 1967. I’m 11 years old and I play the violin and sing in the choir at my school in South London. The choir is being told that Benjamin Britten will be coming to our next rehearsal to audition us for an upcoming Decca recording. To lend some perspective, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were already far more than just the long-haired rebels our parents resented, but they were still not quite yet the household names they would soon become. It was Benjamin Britten who was the truly revered British musician; everybody knew who he was and how powerful an impact he was making on music.

We made the recording of Britten’s Friday Afternoon Songs at the Decca studios a few months later, and later recorded his Midsummer Night’s Dream with the London Symphony Orchestra, under his baton.

It wouldn’t have been anything short of insane, of course, for me to have approached Britten at the time and say, “Excuse me, sir, but I’d just like to let you know I feel absolutely certain that one day I’m going to conduct your War Requiem at the Proms.” I had no idea at the time that I would ever even attempt a career in conducting. But it was during those rehearsals and recordings that my fascination with conducting was born.

I can still vividly remember observing Britten as he worked to transform the individual efforts of a large group of people into one voice. He had complete authority over every aspect of the performance, and having created the music, his absolute conviction in all matters of interpretation were self-evident. But it was his approach — cajoling, entertaining, insisting, inspiring everyone to play and sing as one — that was the most captivating to me.

From the time we are young musicians, we play under many conductors in many different circumstances. No two are the same. Some of them stay in one’s memory for a lifetime. For me, it was always the ones that left an indelible emotional mark on their performances that remained with me. It was those few, remarkably special performance in which something truly inspiring or spiritual would happen.

When I think about the experiences that led me to make the leap to the podium in 1995, none was more significant than the three days of conducting masterclasses with Herbert von Karajan at the Juilliard School in 1976. Although his image may have been one of Dictator-in-Chief, he had an extraordinary amount of respect for young musicians’ capabilities.

Many of von Karajan’s musings across those three days have stayed in my mind all these years — for starters, “The worst thing that was ever invented in music was the bar line.” But ultimately it was his profound understanding of the five and take, the concept of guiding musicians and letting them play rather than trying to control everything they were doing and fit them into a box. Many of the young conductors, who were extremely well prepared, seemed to be trying to show too much, almost as if they were trying to play our instruments for us. I, as the concertmaster that week, tried to play and lead to the very best of my ability.

It seems to have occurred to von Karajan that I might also be a conductor. This was barely true; I had been a conducting minor for about 15 months. When asked, I told him I was studying conducting, having no idea why he was asking. Sure enough he decided that putting me on the podium would be a clear way of making his point. He knew I wouldn’t over-conduct since I wasn’t at all prepared.

What I didn’t expect is that he would hover just a few inches in front of me and cover the score of the slow movement of Brahms 1, claiming to me that I knew the score. No stage fright I have endured in my career has ever come even remotely close to that feeling. Afterwards, von Karajan complemented me on my “hands” and claimed I had the potential to become a conductor. I went home feeling totally inspired and just practiced my violin.

In December of 1994, I was in the throes of a painful awareness that I had reached a crossroads in my music career. December of ’94 was the midway point of my 14th and final year with the Tokyo String Quartet, and I had reached the conclusion that it was time for me to stop playing the violin in public.

I was hampered by a worsening case of focal dystonia in my left hand and I was beginning to worry that I would soon be making an embarrassment of myself and my colleagues if I kept trying to play with a hand that wouldn’t do what my brain told it to do. I knew I wasn’t done making music, but it was time for me let go of my instrument.

Conducting had always been in the back of my mind. Britten’s mesmerizing mastery, von Karajan’s kind encouragement, and an unshakeable appreciation had all been fermenting together somewhere in the depths of my musical conscience for years. Until this point I’d always just been curious to try it out, but now it felt like it was the one thing that could keep my professional music career alive.

As 1995 rolled around, I set a goal to create a new path for myself as a conductor. But how was I supposed to break in to an entirely new sector of the music world, aged 39 and with no professional experience in that field?

I was lucky to have mentors and colleagues who were willing to put an inordinate amount of faith in me. My gratitude to them is as wholly moving to me today as it was during this uncertain time of my life.

The Tokyo Quartet had recently given several performances of piano quintets with Andre Previn. I have never known another musician with such versatility: a great conductor, a fine composer of music of many styles, an extraordinary classical pianist, and one of the jazz piano legends of his time.

But Andre was, above all of this, an extremely kind and caring person. When I called him to tell him about my career change, he immediately invited me to his house for a conversation. Just a few days later, we sat for several hours talking about life as a conductor; the stresses and joys and potential pitfalls. At the end of the meeting, he invited me to share the podium with him at the 50th anniversary concert of the Caramoor Summer Music Festival, of which he was the artistic director. It was a massive opportunity borne from Andre’s trust and care, and it opened many doors for me in my new career.

Right around the same time I received the same trust and care from another friend of mine, Frank Solomon. Frank has been a hugely respected manager in the world of classical music for over 50 years. He has launched the careers of countless gifted artists, and has also been running the widely-beloved Marlboro Music Festival since the 1960s. He expressed interest in managing me as a conductor while I was still playing out my final year with the Tokyo Quartet.

Frank helped me gain experience very gradually. He strategically put me on podiums in some interesting places to avoid the risk of overexposing me. On New Year’s Eve of ’95-’96, I conducted Strauss’ Waltzes at Grand Central Terminal with the orchestra of St. Luke’s as part of a First Night celebration. It was a blast, and that’s exactly what Frank wanted it to be.

Within a couple of seasons he was getting me dates with major orchestras across North America. Meanwhile, Andre decided to move on from Caramoor and I took his place as artistic director. This gave me the opportunity to conduct the wonderful Orchestra of St. Luke’s regularly.

Those early years involved enormous concentration on developing technique, figuring out efficient use of rehearsal time and honing my own methods of preparing scores and interpretations. It’s a lengthy journey to arrive at a place where one is finally liberated to trust one’s process and just make music. When I can simply take flight with wonderful musicians who unify their talents into one expressive voice, it’s the most wonderful feeling.

People often comment that conducting looks easy. I’m the only person on stage who doesn’t have to play a single note for the whole performance, and that can sort of seem silly to a spectator. This has never been lost on my son, who always tells me before performances: “Have fun. Wave that stick!”

But as with many skills, making it appear effortless is the key to presenting it. I had to get used to that during my time playing violin without being able to fully control my fingers, and that helped quite a lot when I was conducting orchestras without the experience of a typical conductor.

It eventually became clear to me that my role was to make everyone else’s job of delivering the world’s great music as easy as possible. That philosophy has stuck with me throughout my career. I once asked a friend who was playing Strauss’s epic Rosenkavlier alongside the legendary conductor Carlos Kleiber: how was it to play under him? He said one golden word: “Easy!” That might be the ultimate compliment I’ve heard someone give a conductor.