appreciation labor issues the orchestra world

more on the pdx monthly article

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!

14 replies on “more on the pdx monthly article”

Kalmar is an amazing music director. Ten years from now when he’s gone, all of these naysayers will think back to when the orchestra played at the level it’s playing at now.

The audience in Chicago’s Grant Park are envious of us. They only have Kalmar in the summer.

And about rebuilding the orchestra, isn’t that what he was hired to do?

I liked your comments, Charles. The perspective of the author is not a bad one, but unfortunately he fell into the old trap of emphasizing negativity. Certainly more emphasis could have been placed on all the positive aspects of the symphony, like increased attendance and high artistic and musical standards. However, this is par for the course when it comes to stories about the symphony.

Carlos assumed a difficult position when he succeeded a larger-than-life figure like James DePriest. Carlos could not be much more different when it comes to musical style and demeanor. Carlos is no doubt demanding, but that seems appropriate given his position and the high stakes involved in live performance. I have always found him to be gracious and affable. I enjoyed many DePriest concerts, but there is no question in my mind that Kalmar has substantially improved the quality of playing and of programming. No offense to the patron who complained about the absence of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, but there is plenty of standard repertoire to satisfy traditionalists. If I had been asked about programming Bruckner 7 (alas, I wasn’t), my response would have been much different. In my view, Carlos has done a nice job of balancing the programs.

In sum, Carlos has put people into the seats and raised artistic standards. I question whether any music director could make an appreciable difference in this economic climate with regard to donations, no matter how much time he or she spent in Portland.

LaValle, I couldn’t agree with you more. I’m glad you mentioned Grant Park. We are indeed fortunate to have Carlos here in Portland for an entire season.

It’s clear that Bill Donahue doesn’t know anything about classical music or symphony orchestras. His perspective is so superficial and simple that I wouldn’t expect anything more than his thinking Carlos Kalmar waves his arms and slashes the air a few times a year in Portland. It’s as if he wrote about the Seattle Mariners and their overbearing and tempestuous manager without ever having attended a game or played a position. All he would have to go on would be his observation of a few minutes here and there.
From that perspective, it wasn’t a negative article on the whole. Of course, the Oregon Symphony continues on the path to be one of the great orchestras playing today and I am so happy to be able to hear you all play.

I agree that “Carlos has put people into the seats and raised artistic standards.” We must also credit our hardworking and dedicated staff under the guidance of Elaine Calder for some of that audience-building success. They are very deftly steering us through some pretty formidable waters.

You raised the question in another thread: “if you’re going to write an extensive feature on something, what should be your level of experience with the subject matter?”

I don’t believe familiarity with the subject matter should be a prerequisite for embarking on an article. I would argue that any good investigative journalism involves a learning process, and if a writer is fair and doesn’t allow preconceived notions to guide his research too much, he can’t be faulted for having an opinion.

Having said that, the OSO does seem to be getting more than its share of negative press lately. Maybe some very persuasive soul could convince Daniel Anker to do a Portland version of ‘Music from the Inside Out.’ I know, I know…it’s a pipe dream…but we do have some wildly talented musicians with some pretty cool hobbies…(Evan.) Portland loves that kind of stuff.

Greg, you are absolutely correct about Elaine Clader and the Oregon Symphony staff. I should have mentioned their important contributions.

Hi Greg,

I too believe familiarity need not be a requisite for embarking on an article, but I think that it should be for publishing one. When Portland Monthly writes about the top breakfast joints in PDX, I expect that they’ve been to places several times to sample the menu and experiences. But I wouldn’t think that talking to the chef a few times grants credence to assertive statements about the nature of the art in which the chef has spent years studying delicate intricacies, or really even the nature of the chef themselves. And honestly, the use of peripheral vision to look at both a conductor and the music isn’t exactly an irregular, and certainly not disrespectful, ensemble skill.

I think we’re in agreement that by the time an article is published, an author should be reasonably well informed about a topic, although I’m not necessarily turned off by hearing the impressions of someone who approached the process with a “beginner’s mind.” Mr. Donahue made an observation that a musician wasn’t looking directly at the conductor. He was curious, asked the musician about it, and published the answer he got. That paragraph doesn’t bother me, rather it reminds me that as insiders, we can become quite far removed from the mindset of the uninitiated concertgoer.

Where I do take issue with the article is in the ratio of negative quotes and anecdotes to positive ones. Mr. Donahue had access to plenty of musicians with diverse opinions, yet he made a conscious choice to accentuate the negative. It prompts me to ask the question: why?

Yes. To clarify, what I was getting at in my initial post was that I think a factor in why the author chose an accentuation on the negative was that he didn’t come to an understanding of the conductor-musician dynamic. I enjoy talking to curious concertgoers about what our work, and I think that failure to do so is a real concern in the orchestra world, but I couldn’t in good conscience recommend this article (despite an uplifting ending) as an explanation.

I agree with the comment that magazines are suffering, too and presenting a controversial story might help sell more copies… Might, because in this case I don’t think there is a story at all. I wish we could look at sales numbers (Portland Monthly’s and ours, too! :)) based on who has read this piece on Carlos! We’d be surprised how much it doesn’t matter! In any case, giving 10 page to someone, who admittedly knows almost nothing about the subject is a waste of paper, ink and precious time of readers.
My comment on the title of the article: Carlos doesn’t have to lead OSO into a new era. This is the new era. See comments of others comparing J.D.P. and C.K.
On a side note, I am glad that Mr. Donahue could tell apart Walton and Schubert just by looking at Carlos’ and my conducting. That would be the point.

This quote is the one that stands out to me:

“Kalmar says this with utter poise and confidence, on his cell phone, while staring out an airport window as he awaits a flight home to Vienna.”

It’s the writer’s main point in a nutshell (a provocative nutshell at that.) I’m less interested in the writer’s suitability for this article than I am in why his agenda was what is was.

Thanks to all the musicians and the staff, the ORS is actually in a new era. That is what really matters. We are not embarking in something new, we already half way through.
And as far as knowledge of what you are supposed to write about is concerned. I picture myself being asked to write about an astrophysicist. That’s something I would never attempt to do, because I have no clue on the topic. To be humble when it comes to any-body’s line of work is something I always support and respect. But being condescending in tone about a person who has devoted his entire life to something I have no real knowledge what it is (or means) is beyond what I can understand.
But the article is just an article. Yesterday we had a great crowd and a successful concert. The upcoming season will be terrific!

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