I’ve never adjusted to the whole ordeal of dressing up and sitting there stock-still, with the obligation of polite applause—and that only at the right time—hanging over my head like a rock. I’m happy to learn that, before 1800, the classical concert hall was often a rollicking place. “The continuous movement and low din of conversation never really stopped,” James Johnson writes, describing a night at the 18th-century opera in his book Listening in Paris. “Lackeys and young bachelors milled about in the crowded and often boisterous parterre … Worldly abbés chatted happily with ladies in jewels on the second level, occasionally earning indecent shouts from the parterre when their conversation turned too cordial. And lovers sought the dim heights of the third balcony—the paradise—away from the probing lorgnettes.”
It all sounds a bit like the party I’d gone to at Carlos Kalmar’s, but of course Kalmar is obliged to be a different man at the office. The next time I see him, in mid-January, he’s taking to the stage in a scarlet bow tie and a scarlet silk waistcoat. His hair is again a bit out of hand. He is at once wild and crisp.
The symphony opens that night with a 1906 piece by the American composer Charles Ives: Central Park in the Dark, which re-creates a summer night in Manhattan in 1890. It is a very quiet piece—Ives said he wanted to capture the sound of “silent darkness”—and at first, Kalmar moves his hands with the slightest, most supple exuberance.
But I’m not watching him, really. I’m straining to hear the violins, which are playing very sweetly and softly, so that I think of fireflies flickering in the dusk of late June. There’s a little bit of piano, and then the woodwinds churn out a few soft notes that seem swirling and eager. You almost need to lean forward in your seat to take it all in, it’s so quiet.
It strikes me as odd that I’m sitting in a theater in Portland, Oregon, in the heart of a drizzly winter, being led into the sprightly soul of a New York summer night by a guy from Vienna. It is a moment of some intensity. All thoughts of the current financial crisis, and of the arguments over Kalmar’s ability to lead a cash-starved nonprofit, fade away, and for a moment, art prevails: Kalmar is pushing the drab particulars of reality off to the side and transporting us—taking us to a place that is at once familiar and totally new.
The horns go crazy over ringing cymbals and a wild pounding of drums. Kalmar makes great, bombastic sweeps of his arms and pokes his baton at the trumpets as he interprets the mystery of the score. The music stills; the conductor goes quiet again. Can I understand exactly what he’s doing up there? I cannot.
But in time, I stop trying. I imagine myself lying out on the grass in the park as the moon rises in the sky. I close my eyes and savor the stars.