The Maestro

With waving arms and an iron grip, CARLOS KALMAR conducts the Oregon Symphony. But can he lead it into a new era?

By Bill Donahue August 17, 2009 Published in the September 2009 issue of Portland Monthly

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It was not my idea to go to the symphony. I’d braved literary readings and endured scores of inscrutable poems read in grave monotones, sure. I’d seen all sorts of avant-garde films screened in cold concrete warehouses. But I’ll admit, I was scared of classical music. I never learned an instrument as a kid, and I didn’t even listen to records that much. The soundtrack of my childhood was talk radio playing in the bathroom on my dad’s tinny-sounding transistor as he shaved. Classical music always seemed to me like the province of experts who enjoy quibbling over the relative virtues of various 300-year-old violas as they sip their vermouth.

But one night, at the urging of a date, I went to the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall to watch the Oregon Symphony play a tempestuous piece by British composer William Walton. I wasn’t too psyched about the outing, but whatever—it was early in the romance, so I went. As it turned out, we sat so close to the stage that the symphony’s conductor, Carlos Kalmar, was thrust up right before us, so close that it seemed he might slice us with his baton.

A trim and nimble 51-year-old Austrian, Kalmar was eloquently dressed in black tails and a black bow tie. But his button-down exterior was blown asunder by a tempest of movement. He soared up on his tiptoes, pointing skyward, to evince bombast out of the 72-piece orchestra. He shifted from side to side, his baton moving quickly, to make the strings stream into tense, high-pitched eddies, and at one point he chucked his baton to the floor and began sculpting the air with his hands. All the while, his wild mane of kinked silver hair flounced behind him, frizzy and out of control, a gleaming addendum to the whole sinuous show.

In an earnest bid to avoid falling asleep on my date, I’d drunk three cups of strong coffee. So the conductor’s antics—and the correlating undulations of motion and sound from the orchestra—carried an almost hallucinatory zing. Kalmar would just wave his hand and somehow induce seven cellists to begin wavering their bows downward, their arms moving in unison. The trumpet players huddled at the back of the stage like so many guys waiting at a bus stop. They’d studiously eye Kalmar and then suddenly blast out a few notes before their leader wriggled again and the flutes rose, high and larksome, over the strings.

Who was this Kalmar fellow, I wondered? Who was this crazy-haired podium dancer who brought his act right up to the edge of mayhem and then managed, always, to reel himself back into a state of serene and genteel poise? He read the musical score sitting on a black stand before him, he made his fingers quiver just so, and then the musicians—complicated people in their own right, with their own opinions and their own fierce agendas—obeyed, creating intricate music. How did he make this alchemy happen?

I’d spend several weeks trying to answer this question. I’d go see the Oregon Symphony six times and talk to a dozen musicians, including Kalmar himself, as classical music CDs and books piled up at my bedside. For now, though, I just listened.

Walton’s Symphony no. 1 in B-flat Minor ends with a pounding of drums and a few sharp slashes of sound from the strings. Kalmar lashed his fists down, fluidly and with force, and halted. Then the audience began to applaud. Kalmar took a deep bow. He gestured at the musicians, who rose on command. The applause thrummed through the hall as Kalmar stood there, shiny with sweat, grinning and exuding a boyish delight as he savored the sort of power that is reserved, usually, for directors of Hollywood films and dictators of small third-world countries.


“I do move around on the podium now more than I did 20 years ago,” Kalmar says. “I’ve earned that, and I hope to earn much more.”

This month, as he opens his seventh season of conducting the Oregon Symphony with a September 3 concert at Waterfront Park, Carlos Kalmar is being marketed as a star, a branded celebrity. Last year, the symphony broadcast a photo of him on banners all over downtown—his crown of wild hair backlit in an evocation of his brilliance. InSymphony, the magazine given to symphony patrons, runs a standing column called Planet Carlos that tracks Kalmar’s every move in bubbly PR patois. “And the kudos keep pouring in,” one such piece begins. The Oregon Symphony was recently selected, along with just six other North American orchestras, to play at the Spring for Music Festival slated to kick off at Carnegie Hall in 2011.

But Kalmar’s story is not one of pure adoration. The Oregon Symphony is facing a dire financial crisis—it lost roughly $1.1 million last year and has accumulated $8 million in debt—and as a result, Kalmar is surrounded by vexing questions: Can a midsize city like Portland sustain a top-flight orchestra that offers salaries upward of $45,000 to more than 70 musicians? And is Carlos Kalmar—this exacting musical virtuoso, this mighty aesthete from Austria—really the right man to lead the orchestra into what many arts administrators believe will be a new era of reduced financial expectations?

For certain, Kalmar, a one-time violinist, is a high roller. Each summer, he conducts Chicago’s Grant Park Music Festival, and throughout the Oregon Symphony’s September-to-May season, he guest-conducts constantly, traveling to such locales as Orange County, Malaysia, and Finland. The rest of the time, he lives with his wife in Vienna. The symphony pays him about $250,000 for the 16 or so weeks he spends in Portland every year.

Kalmar is only five feet seven, but his posture is erect in a relaxed, graceful way, and his brown eyes—alert and bright like lanterns—make their own claim. He first took the podium, he says, when he was 17. “I was in a little bit of a trance, because you could just point—and whoosh! There was this incredible sound that you could control. It was as though all my life I’d driven a beat-up Corolla, and now I had the keys to a Ferrari.

“But it felt quite natural,” he continues. “I am a leader type, and from a very early age I had specific ideas about music. I can read a score and know what the composer wanted.”
He began going to the symphony as a small boy of 5 or 6. “I’d walk into the theater,” he says, remembering his childhood in Uruguay, “and I’d see the percussions sitting there on the stage, and I’d think, ‘Oh, good, this one’s going to be loud.’”

When he was 15, his family moved to Vienna, the former stomping grounds of Mozart and Beethoven. He attended the Vienna Academy of Music, where, he says, “In my year, I was the best student—oh, yeah. My knowledge of opera was way better than my colleagues’.”

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“He’s digital,” says French horn player John Cox of Kalmar. “He knows exactly what he wants, and his instructions have clarity.”

Indeed, according to at least one researcher, Kalmar’s musical ability is a scientific curiosity. This January, Oregon Health & Science University neuroscientist Alexander Stevens took an MRI scan of the conductor’s brain as Kalmar listened to Czech composer Antonín Dvor?ák’s Sixth Symphony. Stevens was aiming to ascertain how musicians focus on music, so he took another scan as Kalmar lay there in silence, imagining himself conducting Dvor?ák’s symphony. The two brain scans were almost identical. Stevens called Kalmar’s memory “astonishing.”

Still, how can Kalmar know what a composer wanted if the composer left no sound recordings?

This is not a question that ruffles him. “I have timing and expertise,” he says, somewhat cryptically, and then displays a rare dash of humility. “But it’s important to remember that I do not create music. I’m an interpretive artist.”

Is he like a dancer, letting the music flow through him?

“No, it’s not like dancing. Eighty percent of the time I don’t think about how my movements will look. I think about what the movements will do. And I’m not moving to the music. I’m ahead of it. I’m telling the musicians where to go. And I don’t see myself as an athlete. If I go to the gym, it’s like once a week, and the people there are laughing—‘Oh, there’s Carlos!’ I guess I do move around on the podium now more than I did 20 years ago. I’ve earned that, and I hope to earn much more. But 15 or 20 years from now, I don’t think I’ll need to move so much. Maybe I’ll be like Mravinsky.”

Yevgeny Mravinsky was a mid-20th-century Russian conductor who led orchestras until he was 83. “When you watch Mravinsky on YouTube,” Kalmar says, “he’s barely moving. His face is calm, and yet—oh my God, the orchestra is playing like crazy. I think the musicians are scared shitless. He emanated such authority. There are so many ways to lead an orchestra, but there is one common denominator among great conductors.” He clenches his fists, grimacing, and for a moment he seems to recede into a rarified aesthetic universe beyond my plebian reach. “Intensity,” he says. “Intensity.”

By some people's lights, Kalmar is always out of reach. Symphony-goer Simon Trutt argues that the conductor is not attuned to the musical tastes of Portland—and points to a May concert at which Kalmar elected to follow a dazzling solo performance by a visiting star, the heartthrob-handsome violinist Joshua Bell, with a draggy and earnest mass by Austrian composer Anton Bruckner. “It was a bad sedative, a punishing experience,” says Trutt, a retired psychiatrist. “I want the killer Bs—Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven—and you don’t get that from Kalmar.”

There’s a sense in Portland that the conductor is an aloof artiste—the wrong person to be leading a symphony that needs to endear itself to the public and elicit donations. Kalmar’s detractors are largely reluctant to speak on the record (the classical-music world here is small and cliquish), but several sources fed me the same litany of complaints: Kalmar doesn’t live in Portland, and he isn’t committed to the city. He’s blasé about fundraising. He wasn’t even in town this June when the Oregon Symphony announced a proposal to cut each musician’s salary by $10,000. And he possesses none of the charisma and warmth embodied by his predecessor, James DePreist, the symphony’s music director from 1980 to 2003.

DePreist is a regal and commanding black man who speaks in a mellifluous baritone that is at once authoritative and friendly. During his tenure, the symphony, once a part-time affair, was able to start offering musicians a livable salary. He also made himself a pillar of the community, serving on the advisory board for organizations like Friends of Trees. Today, other music directors are taking a page from DePreist’s civic playbook—and bravely recruiting new, younger audiences for classical music.

Consider Baltimore Symphony Orchestra leader Marin Alsop, who hosts a casual concert/lecture series, “Off the Cuff,” where she deconstructs musical works after conducting them. She also participates in OrchKids, a program that brings classical music—and instruments—to inner-city grade-schoolers in Baltimore. Alsop routinely visits classrooms and recently made a $100,000 gift to the program. Likewise, Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony, heads up “Keeping Score,” a multifaceted classical education program that includes a PBS series and NPR radio specials.

Alsop’s and Tilson Thomas’s outreach efforts can help classical music gain public support and donations. But it’s not clear that evangelizing will rescue classical music anytime soon. The stock market has tanked. Endowments have shriveled, and once-comfortable donors are now clutching their purse strings.

As Kalmar sees it, there’s not much a conductor can do to improve things. When I call him to discuss his colleagues’ community outreach, he deftly deflects me. “Yes, I know Marin,” he says in drowsy tones, “and she’s very good at reaching out. But I don’t think the Baltimore Symphony is doing very well financially.” In fact, it recently laid off six front-office workers when its endowment dropped 21 percent inside four months. “The job of the conductor … is to elevate the product, and I’ve done that. The Oregon Symphony sold more tickets last season than it ever has in its entire history. So I’m not going to try to make the symphony more marketable. If something is working, why repair it?”

Kalmar says this with utter poise and confidence, on his cell phone, while staring out an airport window as he awaits a flight home to Vienna. There’s no question that he regards his arguments as airtight, impeccable. And it’s this self-certainty that’s behind another complaint about him—that Kalmar treats musicians like peons.

“I didn’t like him from the moment I met him,” says Kenneth Shirk, until recently the secretary/treasurer for the American Federation of Musicians, Local 99, in Portland. “He’s an old-school aristocratic conductor. He kind of thinks of the musicians as parts of his body. They all need to respond to the synapses firing in his brain, and he prefers to work with younger musicians who follow his directions.”

In October 2005, Kalmar grew impatient with his principal flutist, 53-year-old Dawn Weiss, a 27-year symphony veteran. According to the Oregonian, Kalmar “informed her that her playing was unacceptable,” and gave her six months to change her playing style, after which he would decide if she could stay. In April 2006, Kalmar took a measure almost unheard-of in the polite world of classical music—he fired Weiss. “That was not a gentle move,” Shirk says, “and six other musicians also left, voluntarily.”

Sixty-eight-year-old Fred Sautter, a trumpet player, says his 2006 retirement from the symphony had nothing to do with Kalmar, but he adds that the conductor caused “great trauma” in the orchestra and proved himself “adolescent-like and insecure.”

Sautter served on the symphony’s orchestra committee, negotiating work conditions for musicians, and he says that Kalmar repeatedly flaunted long-established protocols. “He treated the committee members as though they were people in his family who he could intimidate and pressure,” Sautter says.

Hearing such vitriol, I asked myself a question I was afraid to pose aloud to my classical-savvy friends, for fear of sounding like a total moron. I wondered: What does a conductor do for a symphony, anyway? In his 1991 book The Maestro Myth, British critic Norman Lebrecht writes, “The ‘great conductor’ is a mythical hero … artificially created for a nonmusical purpose and sustained by commercial necessity.” Lebrecht goes on to quote the late Hungarian violinist Carl Flesch (“There is no profession which an impostor could enter more easily”) before proceeding with his attack on the average conductor: “He plays no instrument, produces no noise, yet conveys an image of music-making that is credible enough to let him take the rewards of applause away from those who actually created the sound.”

So couldn’t the musicians just press on without some megalomaniac writhing away at the podium? The answer, I learned, is yes. New York’s Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, for instance, has been playing without a conductor since 1972. The ensemble, which includes up to 42 players at any one time, makes music that’s known for its jazzy vitality by trading signals and glances—and also by engaging in a democratic process. Rather than submit to the will of the maestro, musicians work in small cohorts of 4 or 10 to reach consensus on the ensemble’s approach to a given piece of music. Then they communicate that approach to the larger group.

But Orpheus is an exception. And for every musician bent on ending the cruel hegemony of the conductor, there is a hard-thinking classical music critic who believes that a good conductor can make magic happen. In the United States, the most glorified maestro is probably Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990), whose shadow hangs a bit heavily over Carlos Kalmar.

Although Kalmar is considered to be one of the most kinetic conductors on the podium today, Bernstein remains classical music’s uncontested champion for connecting physical and musical flourishes. Once, in 1982, while performing Tchai-kovsky’s Francesca da Rimini overture, which is inspired by Dante’s Inferno, Bernstein leapt into the air during a passage meant to depict the two lovers burning in the fires of hell. “He suddenly disappeared into the bowels of the earth,” says Yaacov Mishori, who was playing French horn that night. “He landed among the cellists, who were so startled they stopped playing. The violinists and other sections did not know what to do. But then Lenny’s voice was heard, first in Hebrew and then in English, saying, ‘Go ahead, go ahead!’ The players continued on as instructed.”

On a Monday morning in December, Kalmar arrives at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall for a rehearsal of the second act of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. He’s wearing a rumpled yellow T-shirt, the earbuds of an iPod dangling around his neck. He arrived from Vienna just hours earlier, but as the musicians flow in, he greets them all with ebullient, sing-song efficiency. “Hello, hello, hello,” he chimes.

When he takes the podium, he gets the orchestra started at once, without a sentence of preamble. He waves his baton through the air, and he dances—more emphatically now, with a corrective zeal that he typically spares symphony audiences. He stops the musicians, quite often, to give pointed directions: “I want that note long, please … I need to get more effort there—faster! Meatier, meatier!”

As most symphony players see it, Kalmar is exacting. “He’s digital,” says French horn player John Cox. “He knows exactly what he wants, and his instructions have clarity.”

Cellist Nancy Ives says that Kalmar is, musically speaking, the polar opposite of James DePreist. “Jimmy was focused on the big gesture, the broad sweep of the music,” she says, “but with Carlos, it’s details, details. My brain is tired by the end of rehearsal.”

“Yes, now if we open up and really fly with sound there, that would be great,” Kalmar is saying now, “and here, all this oo-wee, oo-wee”—Kalmar makes the sound and then waves his hand—“Yeah, sure. Not so much.”
The gesture is dismissive, and vaguely sarcastic. It’s precisely the sort of instruction that riled Fred Sautter. But at the rehearsal, it’s hard to discern any disdain for Kalmar. Backstage, during a break, trumpeter Jeffrey Work exalts the conductor. “Carlos makes music that is very conversational,” he says. “He can make us sound expressive. His performances let the music slow down and breathe. It’s almost like you can hear the punctuation marks—the commas and periods—like you do when someone is speaking.”

But does Work really pay attention to Kalmar? Earlier, he was staring straight at his musical score as Kalmar’s baton churned away. “You don’t want too much direct communication with the conductor,” Work says. “You don’t want it to feel like you’re sharing a milkshake on a date—but you do watch, even if it’s with your peripheral vision. You pay attention.”

Work heads back out onto the stage, and Kalmar resumes the rehearsal. “Now, Chocolat,” he instructs, referring to a passage in The Nutcracker. The orchestra plays. “I just adore those three bars,” Kal-
mar exclaims. He begins to sway to the joyous proclamations of the horns and the low noodling of the bassoons. He holds his free hand—his left hand—still in the air, his index finger gracing his thumb, as a beatific smile spreads across his face. He is fine-tuning the Ferrari, and he is, it seems, in a state of pure ecstasy.

Kalmar has his own reserved parking spot outside the Schnitz. It sits on SW Park Avenue, just steps from the building’s stage door, and after rehearsal he strides out to a nondescript rental car supplied by the symphony and drives off. The sight is a reminder of something he said earlier in the day: “It’s lonely being a conductor. I don’t care for it, but to maintain a certain authority, you have to distance yourself from your musicians. I can’t go drinking with them. I’m responsible for the output of this orchestra, and I cannot be the pal of everybody.”

There is something austere and superior about Kalmar. He has never once been to a rock concert. (“I’m sorry,” he explains, “but pop music is pop music, and you just cannot talk about Mozart and the Beatles in the same sentence.”) Still, his detachment seems like a bit of an act once you stumble across his Facebook page. It features a chummy picture of the conductor in a broad black cowboy hat and a host of sprightly banter. “Bar might happen tonite after concert,” Kalmar burbles. “You rocketh, dude,” Steven Sechrist weighs in. Violinist Elina Vähälä adds, “you disappeared … i’m gonna go and pack now, take care, ok?”

So I wasn’t that shocked when Kalmar invited me to join him and five symphony musicians at his Goose Hollow home for dinner and drinks.

Kalmar’s place, a sparsely appointed and semi-anonymous townhouse, sits on a steep, hard-to-find street. When I arrive, the conductor is wearing a T-shirt bearing a photo of four gnarly Native American warriors and the words “Homeland Security, fighting terrorism since 1492.” He sits on the balcony with concertmaster Jun Iwasaki, both men clownishly screaming as they try to summon a bassoonist—lost below in a welter of dead ends—with the sound of their voices.

The bassoonist finally arrives. Kalmar goes into the kitchen. He is an ardent gourmet, as enchanted with food as he is with music, and this evening he is preparing wild salmon that will sit atop a Turkish phyllo pastry covered in whitefish paste, champagne sauce, green beans, and potatoes. There are several bottles of an Austrian wine varietal, zweigelt, on hand, and the vino is flowing quite freely as the cooking becomes a happy, collaborative enterprise.

At one point in the culinary mayhem, someone drops a glass dish on the floor. It shatters. With brio, Kalmar scrambles upstairs to hunt for a broom. He can’t find one, and it quickly becomes apparent that the conductor does not do his own housecleaning. “There is no broom in the upstairs,” he proclaims, throwing his arms in the air. “Maybe it is in the garage?”

Kalmar doesn’t go to look, and someone else starts sweeping up the glass with the stiff edge of a box. “What?” Kalmar continues, “there is no broom in the house? This cannot be!”

Everyone is gathered around him by now, standing in the shattered glass, laughing. His Austrian accent is thicker than usual, as if he were caricaturing himself, and his manner is so comically desperate that it carries an almost existential resonance, as though this were a play by Samuel Beckett. “There is no broom in the house,” Kalmar says again. “I cannot believe it!”

There is something magnetic and commanding about the delight Kalmar exudes. I can see it right now in the kitchen, as he holds a sliver of mango in his bare fingers and approaches a young woman. “Eat it,” he says, with feigned gravity, “or you will die.” She eats it.

As we sit down to dinner, Kalmar’s cell phone rings—his daughter making a predawn call from Vienna. Kalmar looks at the phone with faux terror, exposing the whites of his eyeballs. “Yawww,” he answers. Everyone laughs, again. “I’m going to answer the phone like that from now on!” Iwasaki says, after Kalmar hangs up.

The dinner lasts for more than two hours. Not one of the musicians stands up until the maestro himself rises from the table.

In the weeks that follow, I immerse myself in classical music. I listen to my CDs. I keep going to the symphony, which, in Kalmar’s absence, is being led by other conductors. I see Austrian Christoph Campestrini conduct a Gershwin concerto. He seems a bit stiff. When the music ends, he waves his baton in swift, precise motions at the orchestra, signaling the musicians, section by section, to stand—now the violins, now the woodwinds. It’s a fastidious gesture, as though Campestrini were a neatnik flossing his teeth.

I also watch the Oregon Symphony’s backup conductor, Gregory Vajda, lead Franz Schubert’s melancholy Unfinished Symphony. His movements seem sturdier and more stolid than Kalmar’s, as though he were the cleanup hitter and Kalmar the high-average man. When the music grows torrid, he propels the orchestra along with deep, drastic slashes of his baton.

Early on in the reporting for this piece, I had fantasies of conducting the symphony myself—of, you know, gyrating about on the podium for a couple of minutes, feeling the Ferrari’s pistons surge and roar. Of course, the dream was absurd. I don’t know how to read music, and despite my earnest efforts, the lovely sound of the orchestra often lands upon my ears as a sort of undifferentiated babble. I can grasp the difference between Mahler and Tchaikovsky whenever I read about them—that’s easy. But often, when I listen, the sounds are like Swahili to me. Ninety minutes’ worth of music goes by, and I rise from my seat without remembering a single phrase.

Other times, though, a certain musical passage sticks in my craw—the happy and frenzied interplay between the piano and strings in Gershwin’s piano concerto, for instance. The notes linger and waft about in my brain. It feels like a triumph, and as elation sweeps over me, I regret only how dreadfully formal the symphony-going experience is.

I’ve never adjusted to the whole ordeal of dressing up and sitting there stock-still, with the obligation of polite applause—and that only at the right time—hanging over my head like a rock. I’m happy to learn that, before 1800, the classical concert hall was often a rollicking place. “The continuous movement and low din of conversation never really stopped,” James Johnson writes, describing a night at the 18th-century opera in his book Listening in Paris. “Lackeys and young bachelors milled about in the crowded and often boisterous parterre … Worldly abbés chatted happily with ladies in jewels on the second level, occasionally earning indecent shouts from the parterre when their conversation turned too cordial. And lovers sought the dim heights of the third balcony—the paradise—away from the probing lorgnettes.”

It all sounds a bit like the party I’d gone to at Carlos Kalmar’s, but of course Kalmar is obliged to be a different man at the office. The next time I see him, in mid-January, he’s taking to the stage in a scarlet bow tie and a scarlet silk waistcoat. His hair is again a bit out of hand. He is at once wild and crisp. The symphony opens that night with a 1906 piece by the American composer Charles Ives: Central Park in the Dark, which re-creates a summer night in Manhattan in 1890. It is a very quiet piece—Ives said he wanted to capture the sound of “silent darkness”—and at first, Kalmar moves his hands with the slightest, most supple exuberance.

But I’m not watching him, really. I’m straining to hear the violins, which are playing very sweetly and softly, so that I think of fireflies flickering in the dusk of late June. There’s a little bit of piano, and then the woodwinds churn out a few soft notes that seem swirling and eager. You almost need to lean forward in your seat to take it all in, it’s so quiet.

It strikes me as odd that I’m sitting in a theater in Portland, Oregon, in the heart of a drizzly winter, being led into the sprightly soul of a New York summer night by a guy from Vienna. It is a moment of some intensity. All thoughts of the current financial crisis, and of the arguments over Kalmar’s ability to lead a cash-starved nonprofit, fade away, and for a moment, art prevails: Kalmar is pushing the drab particulars of reality off to the side and transporting us—taking us to a place that is at once familiar and totally new.

The horns go crazy over ringing cymbals and a wild pounding of drums. Kalmar makes great, bombastic sweeps of his arms and pokes his baton at the trumpets as he interprets the mystery of the score. The music stills; the conductor goes quiet again. Can I understand exactly what he’s doing up there? I cannot.

But in time, I stop trying. I imagine myself lying out on the grass in the park as the moon rises in the sky. I close my eyes and savor the stars.

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