Thursday, January 17, 2008

Talking with Carlos Kalmar about the upcoming Oregon Symphony concerts and more

On Tuesday afternoon, I chatted with Oregon Symphony's music director Carlos Kalmar about his recent work in The Hague, Netherlands and about Oregon Symphony’s classical music concerts through the end of the season.

How did things go with the Residente Orkestre in The Hauge?

Kalmar: Everything went very well. That was my second time with the Residente Orkester. The first encounter two years ago was difficult. I went in there being my usual self, which means start rehearsing right away. They didn’t want to do that. They wanted to settle down a little bit and be themselves and feel the music. That was fine. But the real problem arose when I decided to fire my soloist. It was an unusual thing. Only the second time in 21 years of doing this business. But that was two years ago. I'm happy that they invited me back and the concerts with the Shostakovich 5 went really well.

What out-of-town gigs do you have coming up?

Kalmar: I’ll be returning to Dublin to direct the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra on the 25th of this month. We'll be doing the Szymanowski Violin Concerto No. 1, Bartók's Dance Suite, and Dvorák Symphony No. 8. Then I travel to Lahti, Finland to conduct the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. That was Osmo Vänskä’s orchestra. We'll perform the entire Romeo and Juliet symphony by Berlioz in Lahti. That will be fun.

This weekend you'll be conducting the Oregon Symphony in a concert of Mendelssohn" "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and MacMillan's "The Confessions of Isobel Gowdie." That's an interesting combo.

Kalmar: James MacMillan is a contemporary Scottish composer, about my age. Isobel Gowdie was an average woman from about 1640 in Scotland. MacMillan is a very Catholic person and a proud Scotsman. He studied Scottish history and found this very dark spot – which happened all over Europe – people were burnt to death because they were accused of being a witch. Isobel Gowdie was tortured and confessed to all sort of things: that she could fly, that she had met the devil. So she was strangled at the stake and burnt to death.

MacMillan wrote this piece to commemorate that tragedy. It’s kind of a requiem. The musical language at the beginning is modern, but you can hear the links to ancient history, ancient church songs, etc. This is not program music, but when it comes to torture and killing, the music becomes very intense, screaming, and quite in your face. After she is dead, there is a sense of reconciliation. MacMillian refers to the 4,000 who were killed in Scotland during this time under similar circumstances.

We want to link this piece with Mendelssohn’s "A Midsommer Night’s Dream," which looks at fairies and the supernatural from a completely different angle. Because this music is pleasant, funny, and very lyrical. We’ve got the choir part, the actors, and we do some of some of the Shakespeare play. It will be a great way to lift your spirits.

As a side note -- Mendelssohn wrote the overture when he was 17 years old and the rest of it later. That's amazing!

In early February Gregory Vajda will conduct Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 with Kirill Gerstein.

Kalmar: Kirill Gerstein was here two years ago and did the Ravel G major Piano Concerto with us and Gershwin’s "Rhapsody in Blue" and both pieces were unbelievable! He is Russian and has a degree in piano and in jazz playing. You can real feel that he knows how to do jazz. I think that for Kirill you can give him anything. He’s that great! Gregory will do well with John Adams' "Chamber Symphony" and Schumann's 4th Symphony. A great program.

In the middle of February, you return to conduct two pieces by Liszt, including his second piano concerto with guest pianist Arnaldo Cohen.

Kalmar: Cohen is a wonderful Brazilian artist with whom I’ve already worked, so I'm looking forward to bring him here. Also on the program is Liszt’s "Les Préludes,” an excellent ballet piece. "Les Préludes" is one of Liszt’s best pieces but at the centerpiece of the music there’s a great majestic and brassy section. The music has nothing to do with military things, but the Nazi’s used it as a signature tune for their special radio announcements. So the piece wasn’t played in German-speaking countries for 40 years after the WWII ended because of the memories. So, the good news is that we in America can appreciate this music for what it is.

This is my first time to do “Fanfare for the Common Man” as a separate piece. I've conducted it several times because it's in the fourth movement of Copland's Third Symphony. Also on this progrma is Bizet’s "Symphony in C," which is a cute, little thing. And Barber’s "Sourvenirs" is to die for – a very intelligent piece of music.

On March 8 through the 10th Finland is coming to Portland in the form of a conductor and a soloist with the orchestra.

Kalmar: Yes, Pietari Inkinen will conduct and the concert will feature Pekka Kuusisto, who is probably the leading young Finish violin soloist, playing Stravinsky's "Violin Concerto." Pekka's brother is the concertmaster of the Lahti Symphony and a very fine player too. This is a well suited concert. The Stravinsky piece requires a really intelligent musician who can pull it off and get the audience to understand it. Pekka will do that. And the Tchaikovsky 4th is also on the program. With that piece you can’t go wrong. It's great music that is beloved by audiences everywhere.

We've got another guest conductor coming to direct the orchestra in late March.

Kalmar: Juanjo Mena is a young Spanish conductor. He must be in his 30s. He is one of the more upcoming conductors I saw him in Spain a couple of years ago and was impressed. He also works with the Baltimore Symphony. So, I’m happy that we can present a concert that is wide-ranging. We’ve paired the well-known Beethoven Sympohny No. 2 and Wagner's Overture to "Tannhäuser" with two lesser-know works: Johann Christian Bach’s Symphony and Martinu’s "The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca," which will be played here for the first time. Martinu’s piece is a great piece of music.

You are back in town to conduct in the middle of April a concert of Bartók and Strauss, and the Mozart Clarinet Concerto with Sharon Kam.

Kalmar: I’ve worked a couple of times with Sharon Kam in Vienna and Dessau. Sharon is one of the top clarinetists in the world. This will be exciting, and the Mozart Clarinet Concerto has been done here in a while.

I’m excited to do Bartók's "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste." It’s very important piece of 20th Century music that any really good orchestra has to play. This again may be the first time that this piece has been done in Portland.

Then comes the Mahler 9 on April 26, 27, and 28.

Kalmar: Mahler 9 - that’s no big deal! A tiny symphony! (Laughs) Maybe an hour and a quarter in length. We decided not to pair it with anything else is because it is such a substantial work. We all know that Mahler pieces have more too it, background, irony, sadness, desperation, some humorous things. It’s a great piece, but it is challenging in the most positive way. It’s long and you have to pay attention. If you look at the length of Mahler’s first symphony – around 51 minutes – with the 9th and all of the things he is trying to say at the end of his life, then you know how incredible this work is.

Alright! I'm going to be ready to hear it at least twice. I don't know that it's ever been done by the Oregon Symphony before. And this is just whetting my appetite, because I’m waiting for you to do a Bruckner.

Kalmar: You won’t have to wait long.

Yay! (Fireworks explode inside my head.) Wow I’m psyched!

The final concert of the season offers Messiaen's "The Ascension" ("L'Ascension") and Carmina Burana with the Portland Symphonic Choir, the Pacific Youth Choir, and soloists.

Kalmar: We are so proud to contrast the earthy and the ethereal. The Carmina Burana has lots of drinking, lots of love. We all like that. Messiaen's “L’Ascension" is very religious and heavenly.
“L’Ascension" is 20 minutes long and requires a very good orchestra with strong players. The first and last movements are very slow, the players must have the ability to breathe through the music, breathe through the rests, and build this cathedral of sound. A huge difference with the Carmina which involves rhythm, fun, and some weird moments like the high, high tenor in the roasted swan piece.

Let's not forget the remaining concerts in the Inside the Score series. Gregory Vajda will be giving you the inside picture on several great works. He'll talk about two classical symphonys - one by Haydn and the other by Prokofiev, which looks by at the Haydn. That's on February 10th. Then Gregory will talk about Shostakovitch's Fifth Symphony and all the complexity with Stalin's government. That takes place on March 2nd. And Gregory winds up with Beethoven's Seventh Symphony on May 4th. That's a great series and you get a lot of useful information about music, people, and history.

Thanks Carlos!

Kalmar: My pleasure!

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