IN THE WEEKS THAT FOLLOW, I immerse myself in classical music. I listen to my CDs. I keep going to the symphony, which, in Kalmar’s absence, is being led by other conductors. I see Austrian Christoph Campestrini conduct a Gershwin concerto. He seems a bit stiff. When the music ends, he waves his baton in swift, precise motions at the orchestra, signaling the musicians, section by section, to stand—now the violins, now the woodwinds. It’s a fastidious gesture, as though Campestrini were a neatnik flossing his teeth.
I also watch the Oregon Symphony’s backup conductor, Gregory Vajda, lead Franz Schubert’s melancholy Unfinished Symphony. His movements seem sturdier and more stolid than Kalmar’s, as though he were the cleanup hitter and Kalmar the high-average man. When the music grows torrid, he propels the orchestra along with deep, drastic slashes of his baton.
Early on in the reporting for this piece, I had fantasies of conducting the symphony myself—of, you know, gyrating about on the podium for a couple of minutes, feeling the Ferrari’s pistons surge and roar. Of course, the dream was absurd. I don’t know how to read music, and despite my earnest efforts, the lovely sound of the orchestra often lands upon my ears as a sort of undifferentiated babble. I can grasp the difference between Mahler and Tchaikovsky whenever I read about them—that’s easy. But often, when I listen, the sounds are like Swahili to me. Ninety minutes’ worth of music goes by, and I rise from my seat without remembering a single phrase.
Other times, though, a certain musical passage sticks in my craw—the happy and frenzied interplay between the piano and strings in Gershwin’s piano concerto, for instance. The notes linger and waft about in my brain. It feels like a triumph, and as elation sweeps over me, I regret only how dreadfully formal the symphony-going experience is.