A few days ago, I was emailed a link to a major feature article appearing in the September issue of the major monthly magazine in Portland, the Portland Monthly. The subject: Oregon Symphony music director Carlos Kalmar and his leadership of the Oregon Symphony. My initial reaction to the piece was somewhat muted. I’d read a lot of critiques of music directors before, and this one hit all of the familiar tropes. But they started adding up: Conductor as Tyrant. The Unapproachable Conductor. Conductor as magician. Conductor as Enemy of Freedom. My reaction to the piece began to strengthen, and not in a good way. But at least he showed candor in admitting his lack of knowledge of classical music. I wish that he’d spent more time talking about how he came to view his symphonic experiences at the end of the article – that would have been a beneficial and fascinating read. That was the road not taken. Instead, he proceeded to quote some sources that were undoubtedly itching to give him some good dirt for his article. Disgruntled former employees are very unlikely to give you the unvarnished truth, free of any bias – which is just as true of those who are currently working in the orchestra – the classical music world is a very small place. One of the truisms about journalism that I’ve encountered again and again is that your story is only as strong as your sources. So knowing who you’re speaking to and what sort of axe they have to grind is just as important as what the source has to say. There were some positive quotes from other musicians, but they seemed to be included only to give the impression of a balanced article – because the bulk of the piece seemed to dwell on the negative aspects of Kalmar’s tenure with the orchestra. It’s quite easy to overlook one quote of “I like him a lot” as opposed to several quotes intimating that “He is evil incarnate”.
As for the personnel changes that took place after Kalmar took over from James DePriest, it always amazes me that it gets such a charged reaction from people when a few musicians get let go (for cause and under the requirements specified in detail in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that management has negotiated with the union), when people can scarcely bat an eye when they hear that Kaiser Permanente California is laying off 860 of their employees. It’s the first item on the job description of the music director to ensure the highest quality artistic standards from their orchestra. Long past are the days when a musician could be fired mid-rehearsal and never be see on stage again. People like to throw around charges of conductors being tyrants, behaving immaturely, and making capricious decisions, but the fact is, the conductor’s powers have been steadily reduced over the last 50 odd years. And what power they do have must conform to some involved legalese in the CBA. I remember in the days when James DePreist was music director, that some of the veteran musicians used to joke about “having lunch with Jimmy”. That meant being invited to lunch with the music director, and being asked to resign one’s position. This happened more than a few times during his tenure, but according to some, much less often that was necessary for major upticks in artistic quality. In any business, people get fired. It’s not always fair, but there is a long and arduous process that must be followed for a musician to be terminated from their position, and, unless the musician chooses to go public (like the front page of the Oregonian newspaper), it is often handled behind the scenes with discrestion and a minimum of fuss visible to the public.
Reacting to the general tone of the article, one of my colleagues said “Aren’t the arts suffering enough? Couldn’t there have been a more positive spin on how the orchestra is doing?” I agree. Though I suppose that the newspaper and magazine industry might be suffering even more than the arts are right now. Negative articles sell lots of newspapers and magazines. But, people also love a good story about an underdog that’s making their way through the trials of adversity to success at a new level. That’s precisely what the Oregon Symphony is doing, and has been doing, for the last several years. Some cynical people believe that quality doesn’t matter – though I’m not one of them. No matter where I spend my hard earned dollars on entertainment and edification, I expect the experience I pay for to be of the highest quality – and the artistic level of the OSO has never been higher than it is today. There is one person to credit for that: Carlos Kalmar. Part of that has been re-building the orchestra on the path to his ideal of perfection. And part of that process is either motivating current musicians to do better, or hiring those who are either able or willing or both to help lift the orchestra to that new level. It means making hard decisions, sometimes against popular opinion, and staking your reputation on the results.
In the end, the author does reluctantly concede that the Oregon Symphony is a fine ensemble, and that Kalmar is most likely a very good conductor. He talks very briefly about the power of live symphonic music, and how it affected him. But it’s almost like a few teaspoons of sugar added on top of the piece to try and keep us from recognizing the bitter aftertaste of what has come before.
By the way, I was the musician at the party who knocked over the wine glass. My bad!