Conductor Carlos Kalmar can easily tick off a list of Oregon Symphony achievements that have happened on his watch: a dramatic increase in the precision and shine of the symphony, a spate of new principal-player hirings (all of them first-rate) and increasingly adventurous programming. And it seems the Symphony can now add one more item to that august list: perpetuating the glass closet.
Intentionally or not, the Symphony has, in its Voices of the Spirit program playing this weekend at the Schnitz, programmed an exceptional survey of three seminal queer composers: Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky, Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein.
But you won't get this information—or a discussion of its implications—from the Symphony.
"Well, we didn't think about that when we created the program," Kalmar says about the sexual-orientation link among the three composers. "But I think there are people who have studied that matter." And there are: The American Musicological Society, the leading group of music historians in this country, sponsors an active Gay and Lesbian Study Group. There has been distinguished research, noisy debate and heated argument about the connection between a classical composer's sexual orientation and his or her musical output. The Symphony barely makes mention of this context in the program notes by Elizabeth Schwartz—there is a winking, veiled reference to Tchaikovsky's "forbidden love."
Comparing the disparate threads that connect this weekend's Voices program—Barber's rarely heard Prayer of Kierkegaard, Bernstein's campy Chichester Psalms and Tchaikovsky's aching Pathetique, which he dedicated to his gay nephew—Kalmar pointed to the combination of both spiritual and human expressions in the music. "The pieces have a cry of anguish on one side, and the spiritual meaning on the other side. I mean, the anguish in the Pathetique, it's all over the place," Kalmar says. He pauses, adding, "Was it his outcome that he was gay?"
That's an open question, and a fascinating one worth exploring. Asked point-blank if he could "hear the queerness" in the music of those three composers, Kalmar says no. But he doesn't dismiss the argument entirely. "It's a valid point to say every musician writes his music because of who he is...but, although we talk about all of that, where does it end?"