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September 21st, 2005 James Bash | Featured Stories
 

SEPARATING THE MASTERS FROM THE LORDS

Hobbits might bring in the cash, but, as Oregon Symphony conductor Carlos Kalmar explains, the real action is in the classics.

     
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If you've made it this far, you're one of the few. When faced with the words "orchestra" or "symphony," most people take a pass. The folk behind every symphony know this. And like many of its ilk, the Oregon Symphony Orchestra is battling to keep its audience fresh, young and growing. Its recent performance of Lord of the Rings had some enchanting moments, but that music is just pap and a nappy of drivel when compared to the core repertory of symphonic works that have attracted listeners to such groups for hundreds of years. Of course, marketable works from Hollywood and elsewhere can help the bottom line, but the heart and soul of the symphony is in the classics.

With its opening concert this Saturday, the Oregon Symphony Orchestra embarks on its third season with Carlos Kalmar at the helm. As part of its mission, the Symphony offers a wide variety of music throughout the year with special concerts that accent a theme such as music for films or Christmas. But the core, thank God, is still the 14 concerts that make up its classical series. And none of them was inspired by undersexed, big-footed, hairy heroes.

In a conversation with WW, Kalmar tells us why the core of the symphony is the music, not the marketing.

WW: Symphonies have been drawing fans for hundreds of years. What is it about classical music that continues to capture and captivate audiences?

Carlos Kalmar: What we perceive as great music can change. Over the course of many years, some composers become more popular and then they fade out of the spectrum a little bit. Every generation seems to have its own favorites. But some pieces are always at the top of the list, such as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

How do you see the shifts in taste over the years?

I have seen some dramatic changes in taste, recently. Nowadays, audiences enjoy music that is eruptive and is expressive in a loud way. For example, the music of Gustav Mahler has been increasingly popular over the last 30 years. But Mahler's music was not welcome in the early 20th century, because his music is majestic, then very loud, then very soft-it's all over the place. It's a real emotional roller coaster that relates really well to our times. Seventy years ago, audiences were still caught up in the romantic era and many overly romantic pieces were played. Now those are almost all forgotten.

The opening concert's highlight is Brahms' Symphony No. 1. Tell me more about this work.

Brahms took a very long time to write his first symphony. He was no longer a young composer; in fact he was over 40 years old. Quite often people have referred to this symphony as Beethoven's 10th, because the last movement in this symphony by Brahms refers to Beethoven's Ninth. But when asked about this connection, Brahms replied, "Every ass knows that."

You conduct a concert in October that features three very different kinds of symphonies.

Yes, when Schubert's Ninth Symphony was first performed, people objected because it was so long. In contrast, we'll play a Stravinsky symphony that has only three movements, and will play Kurt Schwertsik's "Shrunken Symphony," which contains four movements yet is only six minutes long.

In November, you will be directing Sergei Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2 and Schumann's Symphony No. 2.

The Prokofiev is a very ironic piece and sometimes sarcastic. A famous pianist once told me that he would rather play all of Rachmaninoff's piano concerts three times in a row than play Prokofiev's second piano concerto once, because it's so technically challenging. The symphony by Schumann has a very virtuosic side as well as a deep Germanic feel. The third movement, which is slow, is very moving.

Your final concert this year features Christopher Rouse's "Phantasmata" and Edvard Grieg's incidental music to Peer Gynt.

Rouse is one of the greatest living American composers. This piece comes in three parts, which includes the "Infernal Machine" and "Bump." The music gets really crazy in a positive way. Peer Gynt is the story of a man who is so free that he loses his mind, and we will perform that with actors who will read from Ibsen's fascinating work.

As a teenager, Brahms played the piano in brothels to make money. Beethoven lived in squalor, leaving unemptied chamber pots and uneaten food lying around for weeks. Schubert succumbed to the ravages of syphilis. The lives of these composers often do not conform to the ideal picture that we would like.

Yes, many of these great geniuses were problematic characters. Beethoven wasn't a pleasant person. Mozart had a personality that many regarded as superficial. Wagner was an anti-Semite. It boggles the mind how they created such great music, but thank God they did.


Oregon Symphony's opening classical concert, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway, 228-1353 or 1-800-228-7343. 7:30 pm Saturday-Sunday, 8 pm Monday, Sept. 24-26. $20-$85+ advance. See www.orsymphony.org for more information.
 
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