Many people, both within the Oregon Symphony ‘family’ and in the public at large have commented both publicly and privately that they were mystified by a paragraph in the otherwise glowing review of the Oregon Symphony’s Carnegie Hall debut in today’s New York Times. Music critic Allan Kozinn wrote the following:
The orchestra was formed in 1896, and its international reputation has grown since 1987, when it began recording big, opulent works and sonic spectacular CDs for the Delos label. Many of these discs, conducted by James DePreist, the orchestra’s music director at the time (and now emeritus), remain in print and show the ensemble to be a highly polished precision instrument. Since 2003 it has been directed by Carlos Kalmar, a Uruguayan conductor who has maintained it admirably.
To anyone who has not sat in the audience or on stage for performances of the Oregon Symphony over the last twenty years, this would appear to be a completely natural and commonsense statement of fact. Jimmy has had a major international profile for over 30 years, and was the face of the Oregon Symphony, both around Portland and across the world on CD covers that bore his famous visage. Jimmy brought the symphony from an orchestra that shared a hall (the former Civic Auditorium) with two other companies into its own space as primary tenant, and changed it from an orchestra of part-time musicians who rehearsed at night after their day jobs to a fully professional ensemble that rehearsed during the day. On that basis alone, Jimmy is deserving of lasting accolades for what he did for the Oregon Symphony and the city of Portland, and the state of Oregon as a whole.
However, to say that the orchestra was simply “maintained” at a certain level by Carlos Kalmar for eight years until our concert two nights ago is not only naive, it is laughable.
When I arrived at the Oregon Symphony in 1995, I had just come from my second year of a fellowship at the internationally renowned Tanglewood Music Center, which has one of the finest young student orchestras in the world. I was somewhat surprised to find that this professional orchestra with a major reputation and a renowned music director was not quite at the level of what I had just experienced as a student. There were many fine players, quite a few of who remain in the orchestra today, to be sure, but there were a lot of holdouts from the era of the evening rehearsals. With the passage of the last five years of his tenure, there were quite a few significant changes of personnel that led to an uptick in the general quality of the orchestra, but a critical mass hadn’t been reached to push us to the somewhat arbitrary ‘next level’. When Jimmy announced his resignation, there began a two year search for his successor, which necessarily involved a lot of his being away, and a number of potential suitors being on the podium, which in and of itself does not make for a firm artistic footing. But with the first rehearsals and concerts of candidate Carlos Kalmar, most of us on the search committee saw the person who could definitely take the Oregon Symphony to the next level. He was incredibly demanding, but also a highly fluent musician who had a very clear idea of what he wanted, and the well-developed tools to help him get just that.
So began the long process of refining what was basically a good orchestra (and sometime very good one) into a great ensemble. There were some missteps along the way, things that could have perhaps been handled differently, but were nonetheless necessary and correct decisions that led to some key hires of principal players in several sections of the orchestra. After the first season of Carlos’ tenure as music director, I began to hear from people who had been away from the symphony for some time and had returned to hear what had transpired with the orchestra. The responses were unanimously positive and usually were couched in the form of a pleasantly surprised statement of “What has happened here? This is NOT the same orchestra that I was used to hearing!”.
Most particularly noticeable were the changes that Carlos made in how the string section approached its concept of sound and the execution of phrasing. He accomplished this by programming quite a bit of Classical era repertoire – the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, which places extremely high demands upon the flexibility of the string section, and its ability to play with elegance and refinement. Before Carlos, the Mozart symphony might be relegated to one read-through on the first rehearsal, and then another read-through on the dress rehearsal. We sounded “great”, we were told. We knew otherwise. With Carlos, we would seldom hear words of praise, often when there was no criticism, we knew that it was pretty good. We were worked relentlessly, and many of us reveled in the opportunity to hone our craft and to bring the orchestra along. As the years passed, we started to do less Classical repertoire, and to do more works which are showpieces for the orchestra, that demand a virtuosity of ensemble that is executed to its highest art in only a handful of great orchestras. And Carlos had that in mind for us, and we were along for the ride.
I remember vividly when we had our first rehearsal of Richard Strauss’ magnum opus Ein Heldenleben. It’s one of the most demanding and virtuosic orchestra scores there is, and I, at least, was awaiting that first rehearsal with no small amount of trepidation. We started from the top of the score, and Carlos just let us play. About 54 minutes later, we reached the end of the work, having never had to stop due to some ensemble ‘train wreck’ or another. I remember looking over at my stand partner, Joël Belgique, and saying that I never thought I’d see the day when we would be able to do such a thing. We had arrived at somewhere close to the next level.
There has been some very clever programming that has aided in this ascension. There might be a combination of pieces which no one in the orchestra had ever performed before, but we were expected to have the same mastery as if we were playing Beethoven’s Fifth for the 100th time. There were increasingly high-profile guest artists that were playing some very tricky concertos in which the orchestra would play a pivotal role. And there were combinations of pieces that made for very physically and mentally demanding concerts for those of us in the orchestra. And through it all, we grew, matured, learned new tricks, and became a better, tighter band.
So, I think that to say that Carlos has simply ‘maintained’ what has gone before is to say that Michelangelo just maintained the marble when he produced his Pieta, or that Vermeer simply ‘maintained’ the canvas when he painted The Girl with the Pearl Earring. The Oregon Symphony was really a collection of very good raw materials when Carlos arrived here eight years ago, and now is a polished gemstone. That’s not to say that the work is done, for perfection is all about the pursuit of the unattainable.
I, and all of my colleagues, I venture to say, are profoundly proud of what we accomplished last Thursday night. It is the culmination of over a century of hard work, diligent study, and sacrifice on the part of hundreds of musicians, dozens of managers, hundreds of staff members, and twelve music directors. What we did Thursday was for all of them, on whose shoulders we stand, and for our legions of proud, tireless, and fearless audience members and patrons who have stood alongside us through times good and bad. We couldn’t have done it without any of you.