Conductor Peter Oundjian says he is simply following the path that has opened up before him. His journey has led from a career in one of the world's most successful chamber ensembles to his current work as a respected conductor. As one route closed, another seemed to open and offer new opportunities.
Oundjian will lead the Toledo Symphony in a program of music by Britten and Beethoven at 8 tonight and tomorrow in the Toledo Museum of Art Peristyle.
Born in Canada but reared in England, Oundjian grew up in Purley, a small town some 30 minutes south of London. It was there as a child that he had his first lasting musical experiences. It was also there that he developed a lifelong love for the music of Benjamin Britten.
“Britten came into town and rehearsed my school choir,” Oundjian said. “He was a British hero, the nation's pre-eminent musician, but what I remember most from the event was his energy and brilliance.
“I was only 11 at the time, but to see what he could do would have been compelling at any age. For me, after that, Britten could do no wrong. I came to love his music.”
Oundjian had another formative experience 10 years later while a violin student at New York's Juilliard School of Music. The great German conductor Herbert von Karajan had come to the school to give a series of master classes. To make a point, Karajan decided to pull a musician from the orchestra and have him conduct.
He chose Oundjian.
“I was completely petrified. There was Karajan standing two feet away from me while, completely unprepared, I conducted a Brahms symphony. I kept thinking, `What am I doing here?'
“It was a fantastic experience but, to be honest, at age 22 I did not want to try to be a conductor. I felt I would need years of experience before I would feel I even deserved to be on a podium.”
So instead, Oundjian pursued a career as a violinist. The next 15 years were spent playing in the renowned Tokyo String Quartet. Eventually, however, a chronic hand injury forced him to leave the ensemble.
Oundjian decided to turn crisis into opportunity. He put down the violin and picked up a baton.
Had there been no physical problem, Oundjian said he might never have explored conducting as a career. If he wanted to continue in music, he had no choice.
“In retrospect, I feel that this was what was supposed to happen to me,” he said. “It was certain that I had to keep on making music. That is what excites me.”
Violinist Scott St. John will join conductor Peter Oundjian and the Toledo Symphony in a program of music by Britten and Beethoven at 8 tonight and tomorrow in the Toledo Museum of Art Peristyle. Tickets range from $15 to $42. Information: 419-246-8000.