As Kalmar sees it, there’s not much a conductor can do to improve things. When I call him to discuss his colleagues’ community outreach, he deftly deflects me. “Yes, I know Marin,” he says in drowsy tones, “and she’s very good at reaching out. But I don’t think the Baltimore Symphony is doing very well financially.” In fact, it recently laid off six front-office workers when its endowment dropped 21 percent inside four months. “The job of the conductor … is to elevate the product, and I’ve done that. The Oregon Symphony sold more tickets last season than it ever has in its entire history. So I’m not going to try to make the symphony more marketable. If something is working, why repair it?”
Kalmar says this with utter poise and confidence, on his cell phone, while staring out an airport window as he awaits a flight home to Vienna. There’s no question that he regards his arguments as airtight, impeccable. And it’s this self-certainty that’s behind another complaint about him—that Kalmar treats musicians like peons.
“I didn’t like him from the moment I met him,” says Kenneth Shirk, until recently the secretary/treasurer for the American Federation of Musicians, Local 99, in Portland. “He’s an old-school aristocratic conductor. He kind of thinks of the musicians as parts of his body. They all need to respond to the synapses firing in his brain, and he prefers to work with younger musicians who follow his directions.”
In October 2005, Kalmar grew impatient with his principal flutist, 53-year-old Dawn Weiss, a 27-year symphony veteran. According to the Oregonian, Kalmar “informed her that her playing was unacceptable,” and gave her six months to change her playing style, after which he would decide if she could stay. In April 2006, Kalmar took a measure almost unheard-of in the polite world of classical music—he fired Weiss. “That was not a gentle move,” Shirk says, “and six other musicians also left, voluntarily.”
Sixty-eight-year-old Fred Sautter, a trumpet player, says his 2006 retirement from the symphony had nothing to do with Kalmar, but he adds that the conductor caused “great trauma” in the orchestra and proved himself “adolescent-like and insecure.”
Sautter served on the symphony’s orchestra committee, negotiating work conditions for musicians, and he says that Kalmar repeatedly flaunted long-established protocols. “He treated the committee members as though they were people in his family who he could intimidate and pressure,” Sautter says.