An orchestra transformed: Peter Oundjian in Toronto

Over the course of a decade, Peter Oundjian has breathed new life into the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, turning it into a thriving cultural stalwart. 

Conductor Peter Oundjian is the first to admit that in 2002, morale among the players and staff at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra was low. When the Toronto-born maestro took over as music director in early 2003, he had his work cut out for him. There were a number of vacant positions, donations were dwindling, and audience figures were dropping. ‘The team were very afraid that the orchestra might not survive,’ Oundjian says. ‘They still played extremely well, but the mood was quite low.’

The music director put a remarkable plan in place that over the past decade has steadily revitalised the orchestra. Oundjian hired 30 new players, and established the record label TSO Live, which just released its eighth recording, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. He grew a subscription scheme for younger audiences, sparked interest and support from the TSO board, and even launched an annual contemporary music festival, the New Creations Festival.

‘I always tried to spread a feeling of optimism and a sense of just how extremely important it is to have a thriving symphony orchestra in a big city’

An ambitious vision, a clever understanding of why orchestras matter to their cities, and a great deal of hard work have transformed the ensemble: 10 years later, the TSO is truly at the centre of Toronto’s cultural life. But it’s clear from speaking with Oundjian that his own enthusiasm and passion have played a big part. ‘You always have a certain amount of pride in your native town,’ he says. ‘I felt this tremendous excitement at the possibility of really making a difference to a city’s orchestra. It desperately needed an optimistic, fresh approach, and for new relationships to be built.

‘I always tried to spread a feeling of optimism and a sense of just how extremely important it is to have a thriving symphony orchestra in a big city,’ he continues. ‘A lot of people don’t think about that every day, or every week. It’s only when they think about the possibility that it might not be there, that you start to get people’s attention and they start to realise how significant it is to the cultural life of a city.’

Oundjian’s philosophy has organically affected TSO’s branding and marketing so that it reflects a genuinely vibrant, engaged group of musicmakers. The conductor himself advertises TSO’s concerts on local radio. ‘You have to be very astute and know how to market classical music concerts today in such a way that doesn’t mislead people but certainly gets their attention,’ he says. ‘It’s about giving people the feeling that there’s something really lively going on in the hall, and it’s not a bunch of staid old musicians playing the same old repertoire they’ve been playing for the last seven decades. To give the sense that it’s alive is hugely important.’

Oundjian is known for mingling with his audiences and chatting to fans after concerts. He also talks to listeners during concerts. ‘I welcome people, I try to make them feel comfortable. I try to speak on a level that doesn’t offend the knowledgeable people but doesn’t confuse people who may be at a concert for the first time.’

‘We need to try to reinvent ourselves, remain relevant, and fight the reputation of elitism’

The TSO audience has been boosted by  increased numbers of younger listeners, thanks largely to TSOUNDCHECK, a ticketing scheme that provides CAD14 (€9.90) tickets for those aged between 15 and 35. ‘We create a database of these ‘soundcheckers’, so we know who they are, and we keep in touch with them,’ says Oundjian. ‘If they come once, there’s a good chance they’ll come twice, or maybe even 20 times. Indeed that’s what’s happened. It’s creating the buzz that we all need to create in our different cities.’

Another of Oundjian and TSO’s projects that created a buzz was A Toronto Symphony, a widely promoted collaborative work that saw composer and technologist Tod Machover crowdsource sounds from the people of Toronto.

In addition to cultivating an audience of TSO fans, Oundjian has grown its base of patrons. ‘Of course there’s a whole other level of not only how you speak to your listening public but also how you speak to your patrons, specifically board members and donors,’ he says. ‘These are an extremely valuable group of people. You’re constantly championing the whole idea that this is of great value.’

‘It’s never an easy business,’ Oundjian says. ‘We’re all aware of that and we shouldn’t pretend that it is. We need to try to reinvent ourselves, remain relevant, and fight the reputation of elitism which is so damaging to us. I don’t think there’s anything elitist about a symphonic concert; at least I try not to think of it as an elitist experience. But a lot of people are afraid of it, and we need to take responsibility for that. So at TSO we’re always reinventing, we do concerts at different times, we dress differently, we create an atmosphere that we believe is very comfortable without diminishing the significance of the great art that we’re dealing with.’

With 10 years under his belt, Oundjian has signed on for another three at the helm of TSO. Innovative programming, international touring and talented guest soloists are all on the cards. ‘I try to keep the orchestra stimulated, which is really important, so I bring in interesting guests. I always bring in two or three really gifted new young conductors [each season] so the players are in touch with what’s going on in the world of conductors, the next generation.’