Susan Witkin of Front Range Focus Interviews Peter Oundjian

July 24, 2019

Susan Witkin: Welcome to Front Range Focus. I’m Susan Witkin. My guest today is Peter Oundjian. Peter is the music director for the Colorado Music Festival. Peter had been the artistic advisor for the Colorado Music Festival and was 14 years as music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Peter, Mazel Tov on your new position with the Colorado Music Festival at Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder.

Peter Oundjian: Thank you very much.

Susan Witkin: Moving from artistic advisor to music director for the CMF, what exactly changes for you in your daily responsibilities?

Peter Oundjian: That I have to think long term at this point. When you’re just artistic advisor or artistic director for a year, you’re only responsible for that one summer season, but when you become music director, you’re responsible for the reputation of the entire festival. I have a five year contract, so it’s a much more long-term approach to thinking.

Susan Witkin: How do you choose the lineup for the summer season? What goes into that?

Peter Oundjian: Well, a lot of considerations actually. I like to, first of all, have a tremendous amount of variety, but I also like to have some kind of thematic elements in the festival as well. So because, obviously, if you just play Mahler or Dvorak all summer long, you’re not going to get people to come to all of the concerts. So you need to interest a lot of people, and so it needs to be eclectic. This particular summer we’re preparing a little bit for the 2020 celebration that’s Beethoven’s 250th birthday, and we’re giving some performances of Beethoven, but mostly performances of composers that were very influenced by Beethoven. We’re trying to put that all in context and talk about Beethoven’s influence on future composers, and so far it’s been great fun.

Susan Witkin: So do you sit in your Connecticut home and listen to recordings of composers to put these pieces together to make a program?

Peter Oundjian: Well, there may be some of that occasionally, but at this stage in my life, obviously, I’ve heard and conducted so much music that I know most of the time, Oh, that would be great to go with that. But occasionally if I’m looking for a piece and I may not be able to identify it in my head, yes, then I’ll go on the famous YouTube or whatever, and you can see anything you want nowadays. It’s absolutely incredible compared with 15 years ago.

Susan Witkin: The Colorado Music Festival is in the midst of its six week summer concerts season, running through August 3rd at Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder. There is something for everyone this season with Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Shostakovich, and Tchaikovsky and really so much more. These are folks who were all influenced by Beethoven, and in what thematic area are they reaching?

Peter Oundjian: Well, what we did was we had four different concerts, which talked about his different influence, because most people think, okay, Beethoven, late classical, early romantic composer. But actually he was much more experimental than that would suggest. The first concert was Beethoven and the romantic. So it started with an overture, very dramatic overture of Beethoven, and then it went into various romantic composers who were influenced in different ways. Then we did a concert which was about Beethoven and his modernism. We did three pieces by composers that followed Beethoven, that were really quite traditional and beautiful. Then we did a piece by Beethoven, which sounded as if it was written yesterday, it’s so modern, so dissonant, and so daring, and brilliant, and exciting. So it was a way of saying, look at Beethoven. Amazing guy. He wrote music that sounded as if it could have been written 150 years later in 1825.

Peter Oundjian: Then we’re going to do one about Beethoven and neoclassicism. That was a movement in the 20th century in music, which, obviously, was going back and imitating classical composers, including Beethoven, composers like Stravinsky and Prokofiev, and the final one of Beethoven is Beethoven and minimalism. Minimalism is a technique that a lot of recent, let’s say in the last 40 years, especially American composers like Philip Glass, even John Adams, when he was a younger composer, used minimalist techniques quite a lot.

Susan Witkin: What’s minimalism when it comes to orchestral music?

Peter Oundjian: It actually is when you create a cell, which might be five notes, it might be 10 notes, and you repeat them over and over again. The cell keeps repeating in the same key actually, and then after a little while, after a few seconds or sometimes even a minute, there’s a shift in harmony and there’s a different repetition of that cell in a different key, and then maybe a new cell will come in and so it’s very repetitive. It’s mesmerizing music and Beethoven did this in his sixth symphony, the famous pastoral symphony, one of the most beautiful pieces he wrote, but he actually takes exactly this, and repeats it over and over again, and then changes the key of it.

Peter Oundjian: It’s just wonderful to hear that kind of piece written by Beethoven, and then compare it with a piece, in this case, the Violin Concerto of Phillip Glass, which would be played by the great American violinist, Robert McDuffie.

Susan Witkin: How do you get these folks to come to Chautauqua? This is so amazing that you have amazing artists. You’ve got fantastic musicians, nearly 100 world-class musicians from around the country. How are they selected to perform for the summer?

Peter Oundjian: Well, I’ll start with the orchestra, which is an established orchestra over four decades now. They’re all members. Now, occasionally that changes. Somebody decides that they’re going to do something else and so on. They come from all over the country, a couple of players from Canada as well, and they come from wonderful orchestras and they meet for this six weeks. I tell you, they loved being, well, who wouldn’t love being in Boulder? But to play also at the Chautauqua Auditorium, which has such a beautiful atmosphere and an incredible acoustic. I actually sat at a chamber music concert just with three, four, or five players just earlier this week, and I just was in heaven listening in that space because it is so beautiful.

Peter Oundjian: So the players just love to come and they play for six weeks and they enjoy themselves and they have time to do a little hiking. Now the soloists and the guest conductors, because I don’t conduct every single concert, are people that, sometimes I know most of the people in the business after this many years of conducting. Anyway, a lot of these people that are good friends of mine, and they’re really curious to come if they’ve never been here, and if they have been here, they’re really interested in coming back. So it’s actually not all that difficult to get people to come to Boulder for a few days and play a beautiful concert.

Susan Witkin: You have 18 guest artists performing throughout the season with the orchestra. This may be hard to do, but tell us about a couple of the most notable artists that you will be featuring.

Peter Oundjian: Wow, that’s an interesting question. There’s so many great ones. Well, I’d mentioned Robert McDuffie, the wonderful violinist. There’s a cellist called Kian Soltani, who is playing the Shostakovich first cello concerto, which is simply one of the most incredible pieces, really powerful piece of music. He’s going to be around at the end of July, and that same night we’re doing the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique. Talk about the piece influenced by Beethoven and an incredible piece. Just one of the most exciting showpieces for orchestra. Kian, though, is a great player. He’s half Persian and half somewhere in Europe he’s from, and he’s played under Daniel Barenboim a lot and we’re very excited because it’s his debut here at the festival.

Peter Oundjian: We have just wonderful artists coming every single week actually, and some of them are really well known. Some of them may be debuting here. I tried to make a balance of that because I think it’s interesting for people. Gabriela Montero is going to be coming here to play the Grieg concerto. She actually played President Obama’s inauguration all those years ago, with Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma and a few others. She’s a fantastic pianist. So there’s just a tremendous variety.

Susan Witkin: Does the altitude affect any of these artists?

Peter Oundjian: I think we’re okay. Personally I find five thousand feet fine. Most people just don’t notice that too much. When you get up to Breckenridge, which is 10,000, or even Aspen, which is around 8,000, you can find yourself out of breath within the first minute of conducting or playing. But I think here it’s people are ecstatic because it’s so beautiful. But I don’t think the breathless for the reasons of altitude.

Susan Witkin: Peter, we’ve explored the extensive program for this summer season and some of the notable musicians who will be joining you on stage in Boulder. You have quite an impressive resume. You brought the financially struggling Toronto Symphony Orchestra back to being a world class organization with sellout crowds. You were also the music director with the Scottish National Orchestra. Now you’re focusing solely on the Colorado Music Festival. What propelled you on this career path?

Peter Oundjian: Well, I was a violinist actually. I studied the violin from a very young age and that’s what brought me from London to New York. Back in 1975, I came as a student to study at the Julliard school, and I had a career as a violinist for many years. I was the first violinist of the Tokyo string quartet. We traveled all over the world, and then I developed a problem with my fingers in my left hand, and I had also studied conducting when I was young and I was always fascinated by conducting, and so realizing I couldn’t play anymore and I was just in my late thirties with two little kids, I thought maybe now’s the moment I become a conductor. I was very fortunate. I had a lot of help from many extraordinary people, including Andre Previn, who was a friend of mine. Not only is Andre Previn, or was Andre Previn, a great conductor, but also a fantastic pianist, both classical and jazz.

Peter Oundjian: He was extremely helpful to me in the early days. So within a few years of that, I was very fortunate to get the position as music director of the Toronto Symphony. I say that particularly because I was born in Toronto and it’s quite rare that you become music director of your city of birth. That was a fantastic experience, a real opportunity to make a difference to a community and to a great symphony orchestra. Royal Scottish National was something came along in 2012. Since my grandfather was Scottish, that was also kind of nice, and that’s a wonderful orchestra, one of the great orchestras of Europe.

Peter Oundjian: But there comes a point where you say, wow, this is just endless work and endless detail. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a little bit more time just to think about making music and that? So I stopped both of those music directorships in 2018, just a year ago. That was the moment where I came to Boulder and they said, are you interested in being the music director? I thought to myself, this is just the most fabulous opportunity. It’s so different. It’s so beautiful here. The level of music making is absolutely incredibly high. So in a way, a no brainer for me.

Susan Witkin: You said that the Chautauqua Auditorium has amazing acoustics. Why also concentrate on Chautauqua at this time in your musical career? Is it just to kind of, as you said, relax in a beautiful setting and maybe regroup?

Peter Oundjian: Yes, a little bit of that, I think, and yet it’s funny, when you get on the stage, every concert should be played as if it’s either your first or last concert. It’s right on the edge, and I think that’s what we do. The whole orchestra is a little bit like that. That the auditorium, with its incredible beauty, it’s a rustic beauty, for those of you who haven’t been to the hall, you have to come and see it. I had never seen it until two years ago and I couldn’t believe that I didn’t know it. So it’s like a fantastic old barn built in 1898, but the fact that it’s got good acoustics is I think pure coincidence. They didn’t design it as an acoustically perfect concert hall, but it is. So, it’s just a lovely place to come and make music and it excites people on both sides of the stage. Whether you’re playing or you’re listening, it’s a very remarkable experience.

Susan Witkin: Well, it is interesting. Boulder’s Chautauqua is the only one west of the Mississippi River still continuing in unbroken operation since the heyday for the Chautauqua Movement in the 1920s, which was a popular adult education movement. So it’s really all come together for you.

Peter Oundjian: Absolutely. Yeah. It’s a really great opportunity to be creative. Now that I know I’m going to be doing this year and the next four years, I can think long-term, and I’ve got some really exciting plans. Commissioning new works by fabulous composers and next year I’ve got the five Beethoven Piano Concerto’s being played by an amazing Polish Canadian pianist called Jan Lisiecki, so there’s going to be all kinds of exciting things going on.

Susan Witkin: Will the season expand or will it stay within a six week time frame?

Peter Oundjian: I think six weeks just right. It’s concentrated enough that people don’t want to miss it, and also when it gets too long, it’s quite tiring for the musicians. So they could really focus for six weeks and they have a little free time usually before it. Certainly a little free time, after the first week of August before they go back and play with their regular orchestras. So I think it’s just the perfect amount of time.

Susan Witkin: Peter, it has been a joy to speak with you today. Thank you so much for your time.

Peter Oundjian: You’re very welcome, Susan.

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