The month of May will herald the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s coming to Israel for the first time in the TSO’s 95-year history. Israel will be the orchestra’s first stop before continuing on tour to Europe, with performances in Vienna at the Prague Spring International Festival and in Regensburg and Essen, Germany.
“We are excited to come to Israel and have as soloist Israeli-Russian violinist Maxim Vengerov,” says TSO conductor Peter Oundjian.
Oundjian has been in Israel before. In 1987 he performed here as first violinist of the Tokyo String Quartet, and between 2011 and 2013 he was the guest conductor of the Israel Philharmonic when the Charles Bronfman Auditorium (formerly the Mann Auditorium) was undergoing renovations. The IPO was giving concerts in the Hangar, and Oundjian remembers not only the professionalism of the orchestra but also how dearly the Israeli public loved it.
“An orchestra like the IPO is a national treasure,” he states. “Can you imagine Israel without it?”
Oundjian has been principal conductor of the Toronto Symphony since 2004. He assumed the post when the TSO was in financial crisis; the government had cut back funding, and morale among members was low. By rebuilding personal and public relationships, Oundjian is credited as a major force in restoring the TSO to its high professional status and strengthened financial connections.
“A top-class orchestra is a relatively inexpensive indulgence for Toronto, a city with a phenomenal economic engine,” he explains. “It reaps benefits in both status and PR. One can detect a change in the city’s tone, and it is gratifying.”
Oundjian was born in Toronto to a musical family. He speaks with a slight British accent due to his education and violin studies at London’s Royal Academy of Music.
“A great moment was when I was a teen and met and played for Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman,” he recounts. “I was 19, and these two great violinists supported, inspired and urged me to go to New York and study at the Juilliard School of Music.”
After graduating, he embarked on a career as soloist and later as first violinist of the Tokyo String Quartet.
Then, in his late 30s, diagnosed with repetitive stress injuries, he had to leave the quartet.
“That was a difficult time,” Oundjian recalls. “At Juilliard I minored in conducting, and the great conductor Herbert von Karajan once observed me and encouraged me by saying, ‘Never forget you have the hands for conducting.’ Conducting became my direction sooner than I expected.”
The TSO concert program will open with a commissioned work, Iris, by Canadian composer Jordan Pal.
“This piece has extremely beautiful harmonies, colors and dramatic shape,” says Oundjian. “The composer knows how to use the orchestra well.”
“Iris, Dvorak, Brahms with Maxim Vengerov, having the opportunity to play in Israel – such a bounty,” exclaims Oundjian. “One just says, ‘Yes, yes!’”
Vengerov, acclaimed as one of the finest violinists in the world, is equally excited about coming to Israel. He was born in 1974 in Novosibirsk, Russia. His parents recognized his musical talent at an early age. His father played first oboe in the local philharmonic, and his mother was the conductor of a 500-member orchestra.
“It was my first dream to be a conductor like my mother,” Vengerov relates quietly, “but the conservatory did not have conducting classes for five-year-olds, so I took violin lessons instead!”
At the age of 10, he went on tour and won first prize at the Wieniawski Competition for Young Violinists. He and his mother moved to London, where he continued his studies with his teacher Zakar Bron at the Royal Academy of Music. Later, they made aliya and Vengerov enlisted in the IDF.
If the first 20 years of Vengerov’s life sound busy, the subsequent 20 have been even more so. In 1997, he became the first classical musician chosen as UNICEF’s Envoy for Music, traveling the world to perform and teach underprivileged children. In 2005, he injured his shoulder during a weightlifting class and had to take a six-year hiatus from playing.
“That was a time when I could realize other dreams. I am a curious person, and music is an endless journey,” he explains.
In 2006, he was involved in developing the Musicians for Tomorrow music program in Israel with Anna Rosnovsky for children who live in the periphery. In 2007, he realized his dream to be a conductor.
His first foray was the symphonic repertoire, and he has conducted and/or soloed with major international orchestras such as the Chicago Symphony, the TSO and the Berlin Philharmonic.
“Now it is opera,” he says. “I am taking Italian lessons, singing lessons and learning about the world that surrounds opera. Later this year, I will conduct Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin in Russia.”
Speaking from St. Petersburg, where he, his wife and children were spending the Passover holiday with family, Vengerov says that Israel is special to him.
“It is my comfort zone, and I feel beloved by Israel’s audiences. The Toronto Symphony and I have collaborated many times, and playing Brahms with Peter Oundjian, a fine conductor, musician and violinist, will be excellent. I know that we and the audience will be speaking the same language.”The Toronto Symphony Orchestra will perform on May 11 at 8 p.m. at the Jerusalem Theatre; and May 13 at 9 p.m. at the Charles Bronfman Auditorium in Tel Aviv.