Interview with Carlos Kalmar

by Walter Simmons



 Carlos Kalmar is known to Fanfare readers as principal conductor since 2000 of Chicago’s Grant Park Symphony Orchestra, with which he has made a number of fine recordings, perhaps most notably the release devoted to orchestral works by the gifted but short-lived American composer Robert Kurka. Since 2003 he has also served as music director of the Oregon Symphony, succeeding James DePreist in that position. Most recently he has accepted the additional position of principal conductor and artistic director of the Symphony Orchestra of Spanish Radio and Television, Madrid.

Like a number of conductors of the recent past and present, Kalmar was born and raised in South America—in his case, Uruguay–where his parents emigrated from Europe—in his case, Austria. Now in his early 50s, Kalmar studied in Vienna, where he won a number of auspicious awards, and held conducting positions there, as well as in Hamburg, Stuttgart, and Dessau, serving as the director of the opera company in the latter city.

The Grant Park Orchestra is part of an annual summer music festival held in Chicago’s Millennium Park, where ten free outdoor concerts are offered to the general public. While these concerts include many popular favorites on their programs, they also offer a generous serving of contemporary and/or lesser known works as well. For example the 2011 series included Franz Schmidt’s Book with Seven Seals, Britten’s Violin Concerto, Sibelius’s Kullervo Symphony, and Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden, along with more familiar works. Kalmar’s new recording of three Pulitzer Prize-winning American compositions is his eighth for Cedille Records, and he has recorded for other labels as well.
Having admired a number of Kalmar’s recordings, I was glad to have the opportunity to get acquainted with him. His comments below have been edited for clarity and concision.

Given your multi-national background, you have been exposed to many different musical cultures. How do you feel this factor has affected your approach to conducting and your attitude about repertoire? Is there one musical culture with whose values you identify more closely than the others, or whose repertoire means more to you than others?

The greatest impact of working in America has been its effect on how I view repertoire. When I was studying conducting in Vienna, our emphasis was mainly on a select handful of composers (Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, etc.), who are considered the “main repertoire.” This narrow approach to repertoire persisted in Hamburg and later in Stuttgart as well. Once I came to Chicago and started working with the Grant Park Festival, my natural curiosity prompted me to re-consider this attitude toward repertoire, and I began to discover a much broader range of music, much of which interested me a great deal. This continued to affect my thinking and planning when I accepted the position in Oregon. I experimented somewhat, and really began to develop a sense of repertoire “outside the box.”

I wonder whether you can enlarge on this point. Where did your explorations “outside the box” lead you?

Having been trained in Vienna, my original frame of reference ended essentially with Mahler, maybe including some Berg and Schoenberg. But I had no real knowledge of music from other countries at that time. Because of that, after about ten or twelve years of experience, I started to feel that I needed to expand my musical horizon. So when the Grant Park Music Festival offered me the job, with the understanding that I would focus on the American repertoire, I took the opportunity to explore “everything”: Americans, Russians, the Brits!! And not just limited to those. Today, having conducted more pieces than the average conductor with comparable years of experience, I’m more aware than ever that classical music is so vast that a lifetime is not enough to savor all the great things that this art-form offers.

Are there any Uruguayan composers who interest you?

There are a few interesting pieces here and there. I only wish there were a Uruguayan composer of truly international stature.

Another aspect of my work that has changed over years (though it may have little to do with my experience in America) is my overall persona as a conductor. I think that my approach is now more energetic, more emotionally driven than when I started conducting.

Do you think that perhaps this is the result of developing a greater sense of self-confidence, that you feel less intimidated by the judgments of others? 

I believe that that is partly true. But I would add that over the years I got away from the idea that programing and music-making are intellectual exercises. I believe that intellectuality is only a part of the picture if one wants to succeed in music. And the more energetic focus has something to do with developing the capacity to channel energy in a more concentrated way than I could do many years ago. Experience is a wonderful thing!! On the other hand, the responsibilities of a music director in the U.S. are more extensive and demanding, compared to an equivalent position in Europe.

Those of us who live outside Chicago may not be familiar with the Grant Park Orchestra. Can you tell us about the role the orchestra plays, and from where it draws its players?

I would say that the primary obligation of the Grant Park Orchestra is to the Chicago community. But I would add that the wide exposure achieved by our recordings has helped the orchestra to reach far beyond the immediate area. For the local audience, the fact that the concerts are free enables us to reach a much broader segment of the Chicago community.

About 25% of the orchestra are members of the Chicago Lyric Opera orchestra, another 25% are freelancers from the general area, and the rest come from all over the country. We even have a fabulous bassoonist who is from Canada.

How did The Pulitzer Project come about? Whose idea was it? Is it intended to be a series, or is this release with works by Schuman, Copland, and Sowerby to stand alone?

After working successfully for several years with Cedille and its president Jim Ginsburg, we decided to do a recording with both orchestra and chorus. At the outset, Jim, our choral director Christopher Bell, and I were clear that we did not want to record standard repertoire. We were interested in following the more adventurous artistic path on which we had embarked several years ago with our first recordings from the Grant Park Festival. So we looked at some possibilities and discovered two American choral pieces that had each won the Pulitzer Prize, but neither had ever been recorded. So after Christopher and I studied the scores and reviewed the performance materials, we decided to go for it. Appalachian Spring, the only familiar piece on the recording, fits very well into this wonderful CD. 

There is one perplexing aspect of this release that has been raised by everyone with whom I have discussed it: In 1943 Schuman’s A Free Song won the first Pulitzer Prize given to a piece of music. In 1944 the recipient was the Symphony No. 4 of Howard Hanson; in 1945 the winner was Appalachian Spring–the ballet music as scored for 13 instruments; and in 1946 the award went to Leo Sowerby for his Canticle of the Sun. Therefore it looks as though you skipped over the Hanson—a work that not only won the Prize, but was also cited by Hanson himself as his own personal favorite among his seven symphonies. In view of the fact that there are dozens of recordings of the orchestral suite from Appalachian Spring, wouldn’t that have been the logical one to skip? And if you decided to include the Copland, wouldn’t it have made more sense to use the chamber scoring that actually won the Prize, but hasn’t been recorded so many times?

All true! But I did not want to do the chamber version, because I have such a great orchestra at my disposal, and as always, I wanted to include everybody in the recording. Also, we never anticipated that we might do a “series” of Pulitzer recordings, which would have justified recording the prize winners in consecutive order. 

Your recordings with the Grant Park Orchestra have focused on American music. Does the orchestra typically feature American music, or is there a mix? Are there plans for further recordings with the Grant Park Orchestra? Anything specific with which you can whet our appetites?

Right from the start our intention was to record American music, and I plan to continue on this very successful path. That does not rule out the possibility of our recording something other than American music. As a matter of fact, we have just now been recording the chorus in a wonderful a cappellaproject. And Jim and I will definitely pursue our joint search for other interesting projects.

If I’m not mistaken, you haven’t done any recording so far with the Oregon Symphony. Are there any plans along those lines? 

It so happens that our first recording with the Oregon Symphony will probably be released by the time this interview appears in print. It will be based on the program we performed last season at Carnegie Hall—a concert that drew considerable praise for both the quality of performances and the inventive programming. It is based on the theme—always relevant, I’m afraid—of war; the program will include Ives’s The Unanswered Question, John Adams’s The Wound Dresser, Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, and Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony.

That is a fabulous program indeed! I can’t wait to hear that recording! 
In the United States, unlike the case in Western Europe, classical music plays a relatively small role—pitifully small, in fact. Does this concern you? Is there anything you feel you can do that might increase the appeal or broaden the reach of classical music in this country? Or do you feel that you are participating in a dying art form?

Of course I think about this serious problem. But then I look out and see the overflowing crowds that come to our concerts at the Grant Park Festival. Many of them are first timers at a classical music concert, and I trust that they will come back, and that we are doing something important to develop the audience of the future. I do not believe that classical music is a dying art form. Although this theme has been a constant refrain surrounding all of us artists for quite a while, the reality is that there are more concerts being offered today than was the case some 40 years ago.
And to broaden the reach of classical music in the USA I am a strong advocate for music education in our school system. The fact that we have dramatically decreased the number of teachers who teach music (or even art!!) in our schools, from elementary school on, is absolutely the wrong idea and does not bode well for the future of our children. 

Do you have any long-range plans or goals for your career in the years to come?

I dedicate myself with all my energy and talent to the great language of music. The important thing is to find the kernels of deepest truth in one’s art form and commit oneself to conveying those truths. My own ambition is about making something happen, not performing a particular piece, or focusing on the development of my career.

I am always happy to discover conductors with programming ideas that show a little more creative thought and originality than the norm. So I have tried to follow your work closely, and look forward to continuing to do so. I hope that you will continue with projects “outside the box.”