‘I always knew I loved it’: Peter Oundjian, the Colorado Symphony’s principal conductor, reflects on new role

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Courtesy Colorado Symphony/Amanda Tipton
New Principal Conductor Peter Oundjian conducts at the Colorado Symphony.

When Peter Oundjian was named the new principal conductor of the Colorado Symphony earlier this year, it was a progression of Oundjian's association with the Colorado Symphony that dates back over 20 years. In fact, from 2003 to 2006, he served as the principal guest conductor. His first appearance as guest conductor was during Marin Alsop’s tenure as music director.

“I got to know the orchestra in those early days,” he said. 

Oundjian's life has further enmeshed in Colorado since. In February 2019, the Colorado Music Festival named him its new Music Director. Oundjian says commissions are the most exciting part of his role there. He delights in the opportunity to dedicate entire evenings to the music of a single composer. 

“It's not very often that composers, even great distinguished composers of that ilk, get an entire evening from an orchestra of their own music,” he said. The festival welcomed Composer In Residence John Adams in 2022, and in 2023, the festival will premiere commissions from Adolphus Hailstork and Gabriela Lena Frank.  

The process of becoming Colorado Symphony’s principal conductor was a long one. 

“There was a committee put together called the Imagination Committee to kind of examine what the 21st century called for from an orchestra in the city of Denver, what would be the right kind of model,” he said. 

The committee included writers, psychologists, and rock musicians. “There was a kind of conclusion that perhaps a music director per se was not quite the right thing, but [instead] a principal conductor who would conduct a few less weeks would maybe keep things a bit fresher.” 

It only took a few weeks for the Colorado Symphony to approach Oundjian with the idea that he should be their first principal conductor. 

“I thought, ‘Well, how lovely would that be?’ Because I'm very, very fond of the orchestra,” he said. “My wife and I had already fallen in love with Colorado, and I mean, I always knew I loved it.”

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Anthony McGill, principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic, performs with the Colorado Music Festival. Peter Oundjian conducts. Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022, at Boulder’s Chautauqua Auditorium.

A history of playing that led to conducting

Oundjian’s passion for music became a celebrated career as a renowned violinist. Along with his studies at the Royal College of Music in London and Juilliard in New York, he also received instruction from the great masters Itzhak Perlman and Dorothy DeLay.

Oundjian’s career was filled with awards and performances as both a concert soloist and first violinist of the Tokyo String Quartet. At age 39, he began devoting himself entirely to conducting after developing a neurological disorder called focal dystonia — which caused muscle spasms in his left hand.

“It became evident to me that if I wanted to continue to share my love of music with audiences, it was not gonna be as a violinist,” he said. 

Just one month after stepping down from the Tokyo String Quartet, he began a new era of his career as a conductor performing alongside André Previn at the Caramoor Music Festival. “He was one of the first people I told that I couldn't really play any longer. And he was so sympathetic,” Oundjian said. “It was a completely new world and it was stimulating to a degree that I could never possibly describe.” 

His first full season as principal conductor opened with a program of Beethoven and Hollywood hits played by Perlman. The two first met in 1975 while Oundjian was on a trip to New York. “I called somebody I knew, not very well, but somebody I thought would be a really good person to play for,” says Oundjian. “He welcomed me and opened his door and in his living room, Itzhak Perlman was sitting.”

To meet his year-round commitments, Oundjian now owns a home in Boulder. “I think Denver and Colorado in general is one of the most beautiful places to live. Not only because of its physical beauty, but because it has fantastic museums, wonderful people, of course, wonderful restaurants,” Oundjian said. “I think that there should be great pride in what a fantastic audience and how many music lovers there are.”

Whether Oundjian is conducting the Colorado Music Festival or the Colorado Symphony, he said his approach is the same. “I'm always just trying to prepare the players in such a way as to hope that by the time the audience comes in, that they can be really free to express themselves,” he said. “You actually want to just get them to express in the same way with one voice.”