On a Monday morning in De-cember, Kalmar arrives at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall for a rehearsal of the second act of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. He’s wearing a rumpled yellow T-shirt, the earbuds of an iPod dangling around his neck. He arrived from Vienna just hours earlier, but as the musicians flow in, he greets them all with ebullient, sing-song efficiency. “Hello, hello, hello,” he chimes.
When he takes the podium, he gets the orchestra started at once, without a sentence of preamble. He waves his baton through the air, and he dances—more emphatically now, with a corrective zeal that he typically spares symphony audiences. He stops the musicians, quite often, to give pointed directions: “I want that note long, please … I need to get more effort there—faster! Meatier, meatier!”
As most symphony players see it, Kalmar is exacting. “He’s digital,” says French horn player John Cox. “He knows exactly what he wants, and his instructions have clarity.”
Cellist Nancy Ives says that Kalmar is, musically speaking, the polar opposite of James DePreist. “Jimmy was focused on the big gesture, the broad sweep of the music,” she says, “but with Carlos, it’s details, details. My brain is tired by the end of rehearsal.”
“Yes, now if we open up and really fly with sound there, that would be great,” Kalmar is saying now, “and here, all this oo-wee, oo-wee”—Kalmar makes the sound and then waves his hand—“Yeah, sure. Not so much.”
The gesture is dismissive, and vaguely sarcastic. It’s precisely the sort of instruction that riled Fred Sautter. But at the rehearsal, it’s hard to discern any disdain for Kalmar. Backstage, during a break, trumpeter Jeffrey Work exalts the conductor. “Carlos makes music that is very conversational,” he says. “He can make us sound expressive. His performances let the music slow down and breathe. It’s almost like you can hear the punctuation marks—the commas and periods—like you do when someone is speaking.”
But does Work really pay attention to Kalmar? Earlier, he was staring straight at his musical score as Kalmar’s baton churned away. “You don’t want too much direct communication with the conductor,” Work says. “You don’t want it to feel like you’re sharing a milkshake on a date—but you do watch, even if it’s with your peripheral vision. You pay attention.”
Work heads back out onto the stage, and Kalmar resumes the rehearsal. “Now, Chocolat,” he instructs, referring to a passage in The Nutcracker. The orchestra plays. “I just adore those three bars,” Kal-
mar exclaims. He begins to sway to the joyous proclamations of the horns and the low noodling of the bassoons. He holds his free hand—his left hand—still in the air, his index finger gracing his thumb, as a beatific smile spreads across his face. He is fine-tuning the Ferrari, and he is, it seems, in a state of pure ecstasy.