BY SOME PEOPLE’S LIGHTS, Kalmar is always out of reach. Symphony-goer Simon Trutt argues that the conductor is not attuned to the musical tastes of Portland—and points to a May concert at which Kalmar elected to follow a dazzling solo performance by a visiting star, the heartthrob-handsome violinist Joshua Bell, with a draggy and earnest mass by Austrian composer Anton Bruckner. “It was a bad sedative, a punishing experience,” says Trutt, a retired psychiatrist. “I want the killer Bs—Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven—and you don’t get that from Kalmar.”
There’s a sense in Portland that the conductor is an aloof artiste—the wrong person to be leading a symphony that needs to endear itself to the public and elicit donations. Kalmar’s detractors are largely reluctant to speak on the record (the classical-music world here is small and cliquish), but several sources fed me the same litany of complaints: Kalmar doesn’t live in Portland, and he isn’t committed to the city. He’s blasé about fundraising. He wasn’t even in town this June when the Oregon Symphony announced a proposal to cut each musician’s salary by $10,000. And he possesses none of the charisma and warmth embodied by his predecessor, James DePreist, the symphony’s music director from 1980 to 2003.
DePreist is a regal and commanding black man who speaks in a mellifluous baritone that is at once authoritative and friendly. During his tenure, the symphony, once a part-time affair, was able to start offering musicians a livable salary. He also made himself a pillar of the community, serving on the advisory board for organizations like Friends of Trees. Today, other music directors are taking a page from DePreist’s civic playbook—and bravely recruiting new, younger audiences for classical music.
Consider Baltimore Symphony Orchestra leader Marin Alsop, who hosts a casual concert/lecture series, “Off the Cuff,” where she deconstructs musical works after conducting them. She also participates in OrchKids, a program that brings classical music—and instruments—to inner-city grade-schoolers in Baltimore. Alsop routinely visits classrooms and recently made a $100,000 gift to the program. Likewise, Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony, heads up “Keeping Score,” a multifaceted classical education program that includes a PBS series and NPR radio specials.
Alsop’s and Tilson Thomas’s outreach efforts can help classical music gain public support and donations. But it’s not clear that evangelizing will rescue classical music anytime soon. The stock market has tanked. Endowments have shriveled, and once-comfortable donors are now clutching their purse strings.