Peter Oundjian, new Principal Conductor of the Colorado Symphony, in conversation with Laurence Vittes

Peter Oundjian, the Colorado Symphony’s new Principal Conductor (c) Michael Esminger

On 15 February, the Colorado Symphony Association announced the appointment of Peter Oundjian as Principal Conductor. In addition to conducting six Classics performances each season, Oundjian, who served as the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor from 2003 to 2006, will take a leading role in ‘reimagining’ the traditional symphonic model and positioning the Colorado Symphony as a preeminent twenty-first century orchestra.

Oundjian served as first violinist of the Tokyo String Quartet before turning his energy toward conducting, which included fourteen years as Music Director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and six years at the helm of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. He was named Music Director of the Colorado Music Festival in 2019. I spoke to Peter Oundjian a few days after the recent announcement.

Laurence Vittes: Please tell me about the Colorado Symphony and how your appointment happened.

Peter Oundjian: The Colorado Symphony is a wonderful orchestra and has played extremely well for many, many years. Every time I’ve been there, the orchestra has been exceptional. I started conducting them in about 2002 and did Beethoven’s Sixth. I only wept once on stage as a violinist: it was the very last encore I played at La Scala when we completed a Beethoven cycle. We played the Cavatina and everybody was in tears. When the Colorado Symphony played the theme of the last movement of the Beethoven, it had a purity and a sincerity that I had never heard before, and a tear actually came to my eye. I never forgot that.

LV: And you have returned often?

PO: I’ve continued to go quite frequently. There was a period when I was Principal Guest Conductor between music directors but, maybe more importantly, I’ve been an advisor on artistic matters including, on occasion, finding a new music director. I knew the orchestra and the management well, and I cared about their success. When the pandemic started, a group of people in Denver who were curious about the future vision of the Colorado Symphony got together with Anthony Pierce, the Chief Artistic Officer, and created something called the Imagination Committee.

I was one of the people asked to take part in their meetings which was nice: it was fulfilling to dream about something when the pandemic was inhibiting activity so much. There were people from different fields, people who put on major rock concerts at Red Rocks, who represented pop artists and rap artists. There was a land developer. It was a really interesting group of people, very eclectic.

We had had several conversations about what a good model for a post-pandemic orchestra in Denver would be. One idea that came out of the talks was that having a music director conduct 12 to 14 concerts during a season which, at 42 weeks, was significantly shorter than, for example, at the Boston Symphony or Chicago Symphony, might not be the right model. Perhaps having a Principal Conductor who conducted fewer weeks would allow more scope for other activities, more guest conductors, maybe one or two conductors in residence, and that kind of thing.

LV: How was it resolved?

PO: At a certain point, they said to themselves, ‘Peter knows this orchestra extremely well. And he’s never been music director’. They had sort of been thinking about it, but I was never available. So they came to me and asked, ‘Would you consider being our first Principal Conductor in this new model?’ I love Denver, I love the orchestra, and I loved the idea of taking on a situation where there was so much imagination directed towards the orchestra’s future. Nothing would be preconceived, I would have an open slate, and I even had a home in Boulder. You get fed up with hotels after a certain point in life.

I started taking it very seriously, and we discussed it for many months. I enjoyed the vision of the people I was talking to. I liked the fact that nine members of the Symphony were, and are, fully fledged board members responsible for all aspects – not just what the musicians feel, or the musicians’ compensation, or how much they work – but also the health and image of the organization. They take full responsibility as musicians for the success of the orchestra, and I really liked that.

LV: Please fill us in on Boettcher Concert Hall.

PO: I have always felt that this hall has fantastic bones. At its core, it has a beautiful sound. Yes, it’s huge, and it has some projection problems in certain areas, but it is also at an age when it should be renovated, and that is another opportunity I’m excited about. I have developed some ideas with other people of how to significantly improve the hall without losing its essential excellence and beauty of sound. It’s so difficult to guarantee those qualities when you build a new hall – sometimes you get it and sometimes you don’t. Nobody can guarantee that a new hall is going to have what we would call a magical sound. It might have just the right echo and just the right tail, and might be just the right proportions, but the actual quality of the sound seems to me to be difficult to predict. Renovating Boettcher Hall along the lines I imagine would involve minimal cost and save the magic.

LV: Tell me more about the orchestra.

PO: Very lovely, very warm, a lot of experienced players and a lot of young players who work beautifully together. There is a fabulous brass section, and they have always had a wonderful horn section. Percussionists all around the country know that the Colorado Symphony percussion section is absolutely excellent: they have not only a great timpanist, but he is also a great musician and composer. His name is William Hill, and he writes for the orchestra quite often. I once did a percussion concerto with him which was amazing.

LV: Where are the Imagination meetings taking you?

PO: One of the things that has come out of these Imagination meetings is that we are going to be playing music with musicians from different genres with really good orchestra charts, and the orchestra is excellent at doing this. It will bring in people from Denver who might not ordinarily choose to come to hear a Brahms symphony, or even a Tchaikovsky symphony, but they will come for a particular artist in non-classical genres, and then they will hear the orchestra play. We hope that this is going to make the presence of the orchestra of even greater value to the city of Denver and its surroundings than it has been.

Peter Oundjian, the Colorado Symphony’s new Principal Conductor (c) Michael Esminger

LV: When will the new season be announced, and to what extent will it reflect these changes and visions?

PO: We’ll announce the season in April, and the changes are pretty significant. We’ll see 16 weeks of classics with a lot of different things. I’ll give one away: I decided to do a week of programming to celebrate Mozart’s birthday, not just a Mozart festival but something we’ll call ‘Mozart and Now’ (or the like). We’ll have three major Mozart pieces in the week and three contemporary pieces all jumbled around with each other – except on the last day, Sunday afternoon, when we will do an all-Mozart program. We will also have some traditional programs – James Ehnes will play the Beethoven concerto, and I’ll conduct Bruckner’s Seventh. You want to hear some of the greatest music ever written? Come on down!

Laurence Vittes

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