Carlos Kalmar loves to tweak how our symphony sounds. But this time out, Kalmar, now beginning his fourth year as artistic director and conductor of the Oregon Symphony, has done more than fiddle with the knobs. He's gone and rewired the whole sound system. That's due in large part to having hired three new principals: Jeffrey Work as principal trumpet, Martin Hebert as principal oboe, and David Buck as principal flute.
The 88-member Oregon Symphony has a rigorous audition process involving committees—consisting of nine musicians from the orchestra—who carefully listen to the playing of qualified candidates. Kalmar, sort of like Simon Cowell on American Idol, is then brought in to hear the four or five finalists that the committee has selected for each position.
"Of course they have to play beautifully, but we're looking at how well they process information," explains Kalmar of an audition process that began with résumés from 479 applicants.
"I might ask them to play a passage a different way. Then the committee and I consider the way in which they respond."
These hires are huge news in the symphony world. Kalmar began his sound upgrade when he hired Amy Schwartz Moretti as the concertmaster two years ago. She's been the linchpin in an improved string section—the largest section of the orchestra—which has performed with a technical veracity and élan that is almost palpable. In fact, the Oregon Symphony may be the only major orchestra in the nation in the past 20 years to bring in three principals in one year. The symphony's longtime principal oboist and trumpeter retired. Former principal flutist Dawn Weiss, who played with the symphony for 27 years, was fired two years ago after failing to improve after Kalmar—and later a symphony committee—found the sound quality of her playing unacceptable.
So if Kalmar is getting closer to the kind of orchestral sound he wants, what kind of sound is that? "I'm not replicating the sound of the brass section of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or the strings of the Vienna Philharmonic," says Kalmar. "The Oregon Symphony is finding its voice together, and—as Frank Sinatra said— we have to do it our way."
THE FREELANCER: Principal trumpet Jeffrey Work comes from Boston, where he has been labeled in the press as that area's best freelance trumpeter. He is the only trumpet player to have an artist's diploma from the New England Conservatory, and he has played with all of the Boston ensembles, including the prestigious Boston Symphony Orchestra. He has even played in a Civil War band that participated in reenactments. "I own 23 trumpets, so I can pick the right one to match the musical context," says Work. "A certain trumpet can be perfect for a particular piece. There are a lot of factors. But I sound like I choose to sound." And when he's not playing trumpet? "The fact I still play 78s on my two turntables might be weird to some people," said Work. "I'm just your quintessential classical-music nerd. I'm OK with that."
THE BLOWER: As principal oboist, Martin Hebert brings a tremendous amount of experience, having held that same position with symphonies in the Savannah and Mexico City, and most recently with the Florida Orchestra (where Schwartz Moretti was the former concertmaster). "I've got three oboes and an English horn," says Hebert, who enjoys hiking and cycling. "One oboe is the main one, and the other oboes are backups. They are all made by Lorée, a great oboe maker from France. I blow through an instrument in two to five years. That's because oboes have a small conical bore at the top—only 5 millimeters. So with a lot of playing, the tone changes and the instrument gets blown out."
THE FLUTE GOD: Although principal flutist David Buck is only 24 years old, he has indeed been described as a "flute god" by those who heard him during the auditions. Buck has only to give his final recital to graduate from Juilliard, and he figures he'll do that next spring. "I've played in orchestras for Carlos twice," remarks Buck, "once when he came to Juilliard and another time with the New World Symphony. I like his energy and the excitement he brings to music. It was a lot of fun." And speaking of fun, Buck says: "I'm in a film coming out this fall with Robert De Niro called The Good Shepherd. You can find me playing flute dressed in drag alongside Matt Damon."
Upcoming Oregon Symphony concerts take place at: Harrison Park, Southeast 84th Avenue and Harrison Street. 7 pm Saturday, Aug. 26. Free. Tom McCall Waterfront Park, Southwest Front Avenue and Jefferson Street. 7 pm Saturday, Aug. 31. Free.
Visit orsymphony.org for more information.