Friday, December 27, 2013

Carlos Kalmar talks about conducting and much more

Carlos Kalmar, is now in his 11th season as music director of the Oregon Symphony, and he recently signed a contract extension that will keep him on the podium through June of 2018. Under Kalmar, the orchestra continues to play at an extremely high level. Highlights of his tenure include the orchestra's highly acclaimed performance at Carnegie Hall and two recordings (one of which received a Grammy nomination) under the Pentatone label. Now the orchestra is wrapping up its third CD and is partly done with another recording of Haydn symphonies, despite being under a lot of financial pressure. So, a few days after the orchestra’s performance of Britten’s “War Requiem” in early November, I met with Kalmar at Caffe D’arte in NE Portland and peppered him with questions. Here is most of our conversation:
Congratulations on your contract extension.
Kalmar:  Thank you!
Does your job pretty different from day to day? That is, do you go into the office in the morning have meetings and then meet with a board member or something like that?
Kalmar:  My job is very different from a 9 to 5 job. The most routine part of the job is rehearsal with the orchestra. On a day with two rehearsals the first goes from 9:30 to 12:30 and the second from 1:30 to 3:30. Afterwards there may be meetings or dinner with donors, but what is routine about that? Rehearsals are always different. Basically, there is no routine.
Now that you’ve been working with the orchestra many years, and many of them know your podium style and might intuit what you want, do they respond faster and better?
Kalmar:  I would say both. They are very fast.  That happened ten days ago when Christian and Tanja Tetzlaff were here for the Brahms Double Concerto. The first thing that I have to mention, though, was that Christian told me that our orchestra is the best one that he had ever played Brahms with, and that included the big name orchestras. He also remarked that this orchestra is insanely fast.
The orchestra and I are accustomed to each other and there’s a certain pace that we have. So we can dig into the piece very quickly. You don’t have to spend a huge amount of time on things that ultimately are on the technical side of music making. That was never a big issue here in Portland, but now it’s considerably less important. For the last couple of years, there is no piece in the orchestral repertoire that would make this orchestra blink. That was not the case ten years ago. Certain pieces were a stretch back then. Of course, you always have to push the limits. Now the limits are way up there, and the possibilities of these musicians in this orchestra are astounding.
I have to admit that I’ve heard some incredible performances by you and the orchestra. Some of which I thought were better than the recording that I had heard. Like the Britten "War Requiem" that you did.
Kalmar:  That can happen when and if the performance is good, and when and if the performance is meaningful. Having the visceral presence of you in the room and what this piece does is astonishing. You can’t get that feeling when you are in front of the best technical equipment in the world.  The recording that Britten himself did with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Peter Pears, and Galina Vishnevskaya is an amazing recording, but It simply cannot compare to a great live experience.
I want, in my own way of reading a score as close to what I think the composer meant. Of course, I always look through my own lens. If someone denies the personality of the interpreter, then he is lying.
You do many pieces for the umpteenth time, and other pieces you conduct for the first time ever. How do you make the warhorse sound fresh?
Kalmar:  When you do a piece for the first time, of course, there is a thrill. You study the piece and learn it for the first time. It’s an exciting thing, and when you do it; it is what it is. Then when I get to do the same piece a second, third, or fourth time, the familiarity allows you to dig deeper into the music.  Let’s take the Britten War Requiem. You don’t get the chance to do this piece very often. This was my third time. The first time was a memorable experience, but because I am now more familiar with the work, I think that this latest performance was way better, because of my experience with the piece.
But let’s take a piece that I’ve done more than three times, like a Tchaikovsky symphony that I’ve done twenty five times. On one side, the familiarity helps you greatly, but on the other side, it’s a danger. What has to happen and what you have to be aware of is to look at the piece as if you were doing it for the first time.
Actually, this issue is coming up for me with the piece that I have done the most in my life, Beethoven’s 9th. I’ll be conducting it five times with the Seattle Symphony at the end of December and the beginning of January, and two times with my orchestra here in Portland.  This will be the first time to do Beethoven’s 9th at the end of the year in Portland. We will see if it will become a Portland tradition. The first half will have a cavalcade of stars: Thomas Lauderdale, China Forbes, Storm Large, the von Trapps Gus van Sant, and the second half will have the Beethoven. The great thing about Beethoven’s 9th, is that is one of those pieces where you can always discover things that you’ve never heard before, and you try to bring them to life.
Did you decide to record the Haydn symphonies because the string section is so very good?
Kalmar:  After we had such success with our first recording, “Music for a Time of War” and we were preparing the second recording,” This England,” we talked to the head artistic person at Pentatone – we met at the airport in Chicago – it was very funny because we were coming from three different places.  I came from Portland. The Soundmirror guys came from Boston, and Job Maarse came from Amsterdam. He was on his way to San Francisco. So we took time in Chicago to talk. I talk about I would like to record, and the recording company tells me what they can do. They might say, “Well, we just did this.” I presented the American CD that we will be finishing in January with Copland’s Third Symphony. We are retouching that one because it is an extremely difficult piece.  That CD will include Walter Piston’s “The Incredible Flutist” and George Antheil’s “Jazz Symphony.” I also mentioned Joseph Haydn.  They immediately replied that they thought I could do something interesting with Joseph Haydn. So that’s how the Haydn recording came about.
You have performed a lot of new works by Aaron J. Kernis, Thomas Ad├Ęs , James MacMillian, John Adams, Narong Prangcharoen, and others. What new composers are you looking forward to perform?
Kalmar:  I am very happy to have done works by those composers and others like Andrew Norman, Tomas Svoboda, Robert Kyr, and I’m hoping to do a piece by David Schiff – probably not next season but soon afterwards. I am always looking at new works. It’s a matter of cost and the necessity of selling tickets. It’s easier for me to program new pieces with the Grant Park Orchestra because of the funding there.
Do you own a whole bunch of conductor’s scores?
Kalmar:  Yes.
But if you don’t have the conductor’s score, you can always rely on the orchestra’s library?
Kalmar:  Yes. And having access to three orchestral libraries is an enormous advantage.  I’m very fortunate in that regard.
What was the very first piece that you ever conducted?
Kalmar:  Schubert’s 3rd.  I conducted it without any training at all. I had played in orchestras as a violinist since I was 12 years old.  Everything I knew was by observation. So when I went to the podium and started conducting, nothing went wrong.
It must have been a great feeling.
Kalmar:  It was great. But with conducting, like everything else in life, even when you have some talent, some things go well, but sometimes things fail. And it is likely that thing fail way more often when you are young. So, I did my fair share of failures, and it’s not easy to recover from failures. But in the long run, the failures are important, because failure lets you learn something. You might be angry at first that something didn’t go the way you thought it would. Then you have to learn what you can do to make it better. I’m still learning. I may be quicker in figuring out what I can do to help.
You seem to be comfortable in every genre of symphonic music: from Baroque to the newest, most contemporary work. And it doesn’t matter if you are conducting an American piece, an English piece, a German piece, a French piece. How do you do that?
Kalmar:  I think that I can do this because of two things: first, my absolute refusal to be labeled. Even more than 20 years ago, I didn’t like the idea of becoming identified with one genre. And at that time, my repertoire was a tenth of what it is now. Secondly, I think that you have to curious. Be curious as a musician. And that’s how I’ve built, over many years, an enormous repertoire. I think that I’ll be guest conducting with an orchestra next year where they are asking me to do a new piece. Why not? It’s exciting to me to learn something new. It broadens my horizons.
You’re always listed as one of the top monetary donors to the Oregon Symphony.  Since the musicians have had to take a big pay cut, have you upped your donations?
Kalmar:  I do my donations voluntarily, and I’ve always very silent about my donations, but I would be very surprised if there were another music director in America who donates as much. Every week that I conduct, I donate a portion to the Oregon Symphony. The truth is, as silly as it sounds, I don’t know how much it is. As a music director, I’m being paid accordingly. I am in the medium range of salaries of music directors for orchestras this size. I’m not sure how much I donated last year, but I think that it was around $44,000. This year it may be more money. I have more engagements. The Beethoven Ninths that I am doing here are donations. I am not collecting a fee to conduct those concerts. My orchestra is in a bad financial situation. It’s important for the orchestra’s key donors to realize that my wife and I donate this type of money, which, for us, is not little. I also feel that my acceptance of the renewal of my contract is a commitment to Portland.
Of course, since your name is listed with the violinist Raffaela Wahby in the donor’s page, I guessing that you got married. Did that happen last summer?
Kalmar:  It was in May.
Kalmar:  Thank you!

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