Oundjian gains strength as conductor

Shai Wosner
Chicago Sun-Times

By Andrew Patner

As with athletes, musicians are at the mercy of age and illness. Peter Oundjian, who spent much of his career as the first violinist of the Tokyo String Quartet in its glory days, began to lose his abilities as a string player in the mid-1980s because of a then little-known neurological condition, focal dystonia.

Oundjian had to abandon the violin at just 41 in 1995. But a strong curiosity and a gift for other forms of music-making allowed him to move into conducting. Now in his sixth season as music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, he made his CSO subscription concert debut Thursday night at Symphony Center with a program that demonstrated how much he has achieved in this second chapter.

Opening with Rimsky-Korsakov's showpiece "Capriccio espagnol," signs were not great when Oundjian gave too many soloists their heads and failed to enforce discipline. (Principal harp Sarah Bullen was a notable exception.) But from the first movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20, K. 466, through a rare CSO performance of Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 5, Oundjian showed talent for bringing out the strings, supporting his soloist and communicating with his players.

The soloist was the young Israeli Shai Wosner, an alum of Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra project. In his overdue CSO subscription debut, Wosner showed a remarkable blend of the intellectual, physical and even devilish sides of performance that could lead to great accomplishment. Complexity clearly attracts him, but so does its translation into apparent ease in performing. The ingredients that were in the young Rudolf Serkin are all here. Let's hear him more.

Dale Clevenger, 69, has been principal horn of the CSO and one of the world's legendary orchestral musicians for exactly 44 years now. In addition to his unmatched abilities as a section leader and his contributions as a teacher for almost a half-century, he has been a conscience of the CSO and an outspoken critic of any moves by the orchestra toward mediocrity. His outspokenness has earned him enemies who know little about his instrument.

So it is no joy to write these words, but the level of his playing this season and his technical troubles in high-profile solos in both Chicago and at Carnegie Hall over the last month have been far below the standards of the CSO, standards that he more than any other current member of the orchestra has maintained and defended.

As with a great athlete in his twilight, as with many of his colleagues who faced similar periods after decades of distinguished service to the CSO, this cannot be an easy time for Clevenger. But it's time for a cap on a unique orchestral career that should be noted for its many triumphs and not a late struggle against time.