Indeed, according to at least one researcher, Kalmar’s musical ability is a scientific curiosity. This January, Oregon Health & Science University neuroscientist Alexander Stevens took an MRI scan of the conductor’s brain as Kalmar listened to Czech composer Antonín Dvor?ák’s Sixth Symphony. Stevens was aiming to ascertain how musicians focus on music, so he took another scan as Kalmar lay there in silence, imagining himself conducting Dvor?ák’s symphony. The two brain scans were almost identical. Stevens called Kalmar’s memory “astonishing.”
Still, how can Kalmar know what a composer wanted if the composer left no sound recordings?
This is not a question that ruffles him. “I have timing and expertise,” he says, somewhat cryptically, and then displays a rare dash of humility. “But it’s important to remember that I do not create music. I’m an interpretive artist.”
Is he like a dancer, letting the music flow through him?
“No, it’s not like dancing. Eighty percent of the time I don’t think about how my movements will look. I think about what the movements will do. And I’m not moving to the music. I’m ahead of it. I’m telling the musicians where to go. And I don’t see myself as an athlete. If I go to the gym, it’s like once a week, and the people there are laughing—‘Oh, there’s Carlos!’ I guess I do move around on the podium now more than I did 20 years ago. I’ve earned that, and I hope to earn much more. But 15 or 20 years from now, I don’t think I’ll need to move so much. Maybe I’ll be like Mravinsky.”
Yevgeny Mravinsky was a mid-20th-century Russian conductor who led orchestras until he was 83. “When you watch Mravinsky on YouTube,” Kalmar says, “he’s barely moving. His face is calm, and yet—oh my God, the orchestra is playing like crazy. I think the musicians are scared shitless. He emanated such authority. There are so many ways to lead an orchestra, but there is one common denominator among great conductors.” He clenches his fists, grimacing, and for a moment he seems to recede into a rarified aesthetic universe beyond my plebian reach. “Intensity,” he says. “Intensity.”