When one pilot takes over for another, there's not much to compare between their individual flying techniques: You take off, you fly, and you touch down again. Not so the case of the symphony conductor. Because if the composer's music is the 747 on which the audience has booked flight, the conductor is at the controls, shaping or altering the sonic journey, accelerating or hovering, diving or climbing, and making it all happen without losing the way or--he hopes--the passengers' interest.
From his first concert as successor to James DePreist last September, Uruguay-born and Vienna-educated Carlos Kalmar made it clear that a different set of hands had taken the stick.
Here are some tips for discerning the difference:
Style: While DePreist excelled at the big picture in his 24-year reign, building a symphonic edifice by heaping chunky glories one atop another, he was weak on details. Translated into musical terms, that means his Bernstein (or just about any other 20th-century composer) always scored higher marks than his Beethoven. Kalmar is just the opposite. He probes, almost obsessively, the intricacies of 18th- and early 19th-century music (summed up succinctly as Bach, Beethoven and Brahms). Kalmar draws iridescence from an otherwise innocuous violin phrase, urges percussion to shout like a mob, husbands sonorities and vents naked emotion. Yet every stroke of his wild tone-painting is framed by cool athleticism and steely control. His Mozart is refined and correct, yet fluent enough in the era's idiom to tease and charm. His Beethoven is cathedral-big but doesn't stint on throwing into high relief the complex facade of poetry, philosophy and pathos that the composer built into each of his scores.
Orchestra: DePreist arrayed cellos and double basses to his right, violas to the middle, and a massive violin army to his left, in a figuration as much due to traditional seating rules as to DePreist's own specifications. Kalmar optimizes the dicey Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall acoustics by dividing the high strings, placing the dark strings near center stage and brass, winds and percussion on risers. The result: a new sense of resonance, volume and clarity, in which a phrase from the cellos is deepened and dramatized by emerging from the center. Where the winds once warbled weakly from a wash of high strings, they now trace clear solos and rich chorales. For once, the Schnitz not only looks but sounds like a reasonably workable concert venue.
Sound: DePreist created a dense sound world, working to exploit big themes. Under Kalmar, there's a new muscularity to the sound, and the band is worked out more thoroughly and more often. You can hear it everywhere: ecstatic strings, authoritative brass, eloquent winds. Kalmar, a violinist, exploits the orchestra's colors as if his 80-plus instruments were reduced to one.
Background: DePreist, a student of composer Vincent Persichetti at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music, specialized in impressionistic Romantic and 20th-century music. In contrast, Kalmar favors the crisp 18th- and 19th-century Teutonic crowd--Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms--which is a testament to his training under Professor Karl Österreicher at the Vienna Academy of Music. He draws drama from his passion for opera, which helped him pick up five languages and a flair for discovering theater in any score. Yet he also navigates the angular, jazzy work of 20th-century American composers as if to the manner born.
Personality: From the podium, DePreist appeared mountainous and steadfast, as serene as a Buddha, arms outstretched as the orchestra sent up fireworks. Those who know conducting will also recall DePreist's frequent negligence in giving cues and an apparently automatic-pilot style that focused on the big buildup to a symphony's concluding bars. Wiry and agile at 45, Kalmar doesn't just conduct*he lunges, bounces, dances. The ironic sense of humor evident in his music-making also appears in the cartoon-colored bowties and cummerbunds that brighten his formal concert attire.
Vision: A poet by avocation, DePreist subsumed himself in the philosophy of music. Kalmar's approach is more direct. "You cannot be a conductor without some ego," he confesses. "Often much ego is involved. Because the act and the art of conducting require an expression of the individual as much as the collective spirit."
Impact: Watch this space.
James DePreist, conductor emeritus with the Oregon Symphony, has been appointed director of conducting and orchestral studies at the Juilliard School of Music in New York.
Some of Carlos Kalmar's upcoming Portland concerts:
Feb 21-23: Kalmar conducts Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 and the complete incidental music to the play Egmont.
May 15-17: Kalmar is joined again by the Portland Symphonic Choir in Mahler's Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection."
Visit www.oregonsymphony.org for more information.