It was not my idea to go to the symphony. I’d braved literary readings and endured scores of inscrutable poems read in grave monotones, sure. I’d seen all sorts of avant-garde films screened in cold concrete warehouses. But I’ll admit, I was scared of classical music. I never learned an instrument as a kid, and I didn’t even listen to records that much. The soundtrack of my childhood was talk radio playing in the bathroom on my dad’s tinny-sounding transistor as he shaved. Classical music always seemed to me like the province of experts who enjoy quibbling over the relative virtues of various 300-year-old violas as they sip their vermouth.
But one night, at the urging of a date, I went to the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall to watch the Oregon Symphony play a tempestuous piece by British composer William Walton. I wasn’t too psyched about the outing, but whatever—it was early in the romance, so I went. As it turned out, we sat so close to the stage that the symphony’s conductor, Carlos Kalmar, was thrust up right before us, so close that it seemed he might slice us with his baton.
A trim and nimble 51-year-old Austrian, Kalmar was eloquently dressed in black tails and a black bow tie. But his button-down exterior was blown asunder by a tempest of movement. He soared up on his tiptoes, pointing skyward, to evince bombast out of the 72-piece orchestra. He shifted from side to side, his baton moving quickly, to make the strings stream into tense, high-pitched eddies, and at one point he chucked his baton to the floor and began sculpting the air with his hands. All the while, his wild mane of kinked silver hair flounced behind him, frizzy and out of control, a gleaming addendum to the whole sinuous show.
In an earnest bid to avoid falling asleep on my date, I’d drunk three cups of strong coffee. So the conductor’s antics—and the correlating undulations of motion and sound from the orchestra—carried an almost hallucinatory zing. Kalmar would just wave his hand and somehow induce seven cellists to begin wavering their bows downward, their arms moving in unison. The trumpet players huddled at the back of the stage like so many guys waiting at a bus stop. They’d studiously eye Kalmar and then suddenly blast out a few notes before their leader wriggled again and the flutes rose, high and larksome, over the strings.
Who was this Kalmar fellow, I wondered? Who was this crazy-haired podium dancer who brought his act right up to the edge of mayhem and then managed, always, to reel himself back into a state of serene and genteel poise? He read the musical score sitting on a black stand before him, he made his fingers quiver just so, and then the musicians—complicated people in their own right, with their own opinions and their own fierce agendas—obeyed, creating intricate music. How did he make this alchemy happen?
I’d spend several weeks trying to answer this question. I’d go see the Oregon Symphony six times and talk to a dozen musicians, including Kalmar himself, as classical music CDs and books piled up at my bedside. For now, though, I just listened.
Walton’s Symphony no. 1 in B-flat Minor ends with a pounding of drums and a few sharp slashes of sound from the strings. Kalmar lashed his fists down, fluidly and with force, and halted. Then the audience began to applaud. Kalmar took a deep bow. He gestured at the musicians, who rose on command. The applause thrummed through the hall as Kalmar stood there, shiny with sweat, grinning and exuding a boyish delight as he savored the sort of power that is reserved, usually, for directors of Hollywood films and dictators of small third-world countries.