Whether it was the foreordained scheming of fate or a spur-of-the-moment revelation, something made teenage violin student Carlos Kalmar approach the director of Vienna Music High School and ask to conduct a student rehearsal. "I have no idea why he said yes," the 44-year-old Kalmar marveled recently, in an interview granted WW during a brief visit to Portland. "I had no ideas, no experience--only that I had been playing in orchestras since I was 12. But I survived the rehearsal!"
Kalmar did more than survive. He continued with the violin, but after unsuccessfully applying to obtain an orchestra chair, the future music director of Vienna's prestigious Tonkünstlerorchester, principal conductor of Chicago's Grant Park Music Festival and, now, music director designate of the Oregon Symphony realized that standing before--rather than performing with--an orchestra was his true calling.
The proof has been in the performances, as Portland audiences had an opportunity to hear earlier this year, when Kalmar, seventh of 10 candidates for the position of retiring music director James DePreist, conducted the orchestra on two remarkable occasions.
As was obvious from his conducting, Kalmar is a firm believer in clear communication--communicating the composer's ideas as well as rendering the style of the composer's creative and cultural milieu. Needless to say, he is also a fine communicator of what he wants from his players. Several Oregon Symphony members have commented on what a pleasure Kalmar is to follow and how clearly stated are the ideas and motivations signaled by both baton and body language. They have also remarked favorably on Kalmar's demanding rehearsal ethic.
Passion and honesty are Kalmar's watchwords and a signature of his conducting style, as is his fondness for structuring programs along particular themes and bringing to light neglected gems of the symphonic repertoire.
"There are two small trademarks of a 'Kalmar program,'" he says. One is orienting the music to a theme. When researching past OS programs, Kalmar was delighted to find one built around works inspired by Shakespeare's plays. "It was a program DePreist put together," he says. "I saw it and I thought, 'Now that's something I would have done!'" The other Kalmar trademark is just as intriguing: his belief in airing works which, despite their composers' fame, somehow don't get heard as often as their quality warrants. "We all know Tchaikovsky wrote three wonderful symphonies," Kalmar smiles, "but they are always Nos. 4, 5 and 6."
The OS, Kalmar asserts, is full of "many talented players who want to work very hard--that's important to me"--and is one of the primary reasons he took the job of music director. Overall, he sees in the orchestra not weaknesses but latent strengths deserving of greater development. What Kalmar puts at the top of the to-do list is developing better interpretation, not only of the music of different eras, but of different cultural contexts. In a word, he wants to make Portland's hometown band into an ensemble fully capable of cosmopolitan performance standards. "I don't like it when people say, 'This sounds like a French piece led by an Austrian conductor with an American orchestra.'" As befits a man of Austrian lineage and Uruguayan birth, who speaks five languages and works between two continents, Kalmar believes the most important task for any orchestra that would consider itself world-class is to be able to "play different styles, and play them properly. We are really going to work on that."
That is good news. For the past 23 years, the OS has blossomed like an overblown rose under DePreist's care, but has been heavily weighted toward music of the Romantic and post-Romantic eras, to the detriment of programming and performance standards of the Classical and Baroque periods. Also, Kalmar has a passion (and proven talent) for the American repertoire, honed in his Grant Park Festival programs, and his future plans for the OS include the commissioning and premiering of new works, something "a big and wonderful orchestra as we have here in Oregon should do, to bring something new into the world."
Of course, the biggest question facing anyone who leads the Symphony is: Shouldn't a world-class orchestra have a world-class concert hall? Having only conducted twice in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, the Oregon Symphony's current and oft-criticized venue, Kalmar declines to render any swift judgments on its acoustic viability. "But what I really can say," he added, "is that every major, important orchestra should have its own hall. That is no criticism of the Schnitzer. It's just a matter of fact." Build it, and the world will have to sit up and listen.
Carlos Kalmar is the 10th music director of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra. (Conductor Carl Denton, from 1918- 1925, was the first.)
Maestro Kalmar will conduct his first concert as music director on Nov. 30--the "Best of the Baroque"--followed by concerts Dec. 7-9, 2002.
James DePreist, the OSO's retiring music director, will relinquish his podium at the end of the 2002-03 season and assume the moniker of Conductor Emeritus. Tributes to DePreist will follow next summer.