THIS MONTH, as he opens his seventh season of conducting the Oregon Symphony with a September 3 concert at Waterfront Park, Carlos Kalmar is being marketed as a star, a branded celebrity. Last year, the symphony broadcast a photo of him on banners all over downtown—his crown of wild hair backlit in an evocation of his brilliance. InSymphony, the magazine given to symphony patrons, runs a standing column called Planet Carlos that tracks Kalmar’s every move in bubbly PR patois. “And the kudos keep pouring in,” one such piece begins. The Oregon Symphony was recently selected, along with just six other North American orchestras, to play at the Spring for Music Festival slated to kick off at Carnegie Hall in 2011.
But Kalmar’s story is not one of pure adoration. The Oregon Symphony is facing a dire financial crisis—it lost roughly $1.1 million last year and has accumulated $8 million in debt—and as a result, Kalmar is surrounded by vexing questions: Can a midsize city like Portland sustain a top-flight orchestra that offers salaries upward of $45,000 to more than 70 musicians? And is Carlos Kalmar—this exacting musical virtuoso, this mighty aesthete from Austria—really the right man to lead the orchestra into what many arts administrators believe will be a new era of reduced financial expectations?
For certain, Kalmar, a one-time violinist, is a high roller. Each summer, he conducts Chicago’s Grant Park Music Festival, and throughout the Oregon Symphony’s September-to-May season, he guest-conducts constantly, traveling to such locales as Orange County, Malaysia, and Finland. The rest of the time, he lives with his wife in Vienna. The symphony pays him about $250,000 for the 16 or so weeks he spends in Portland every year.
Kalmar is only five feet seven, but his posture is erect in a relaxed, graceful way, and his brown eyes—alert and bright like lanterns—make their own claim. He first took the podium, he says, when he was 17. “I was in a little bit of a trance, because you could just point—and whoosh! There was this incredible sound that you could control. It was as though all my life I’d driven a beat-up Corolla, and now I had the keys to a Ferrari.
“But it felt quite natural,” he continues. “I am a leader type, and from a very early age I had specific ideas about music. I can read a score and know what the composer wanted.”
He began going to the symphony as a small boy of 5 or 6. “I’d walk into the theater,” he says, remembering his childhood in Uruguay, “and I’d see the percussions sitting there on the stage, and I’d think, ‘Oh, good, this one’s going to be loud.’”
When he was 15, his family moved to Vienna, the former stomping grounds of Mozart and Beethoven. He attended the Vienna Academy of Music, where, he says, “In my year, I was the best student—oh, yeah. My knowledge of opera was way better than my colleagues’.”