Carlos Kalmar on the Grant Park experience

June 16, 2013

By Kyle MacMillan, Chicago Sun-Times

Watch a video of Carlos Kalmar's interview with the Chicago Sun-Times

During his 13 years as principal conductor and now artistic director of the Grant Park Music Festival, Carlos Kalmar has steadily raised the level of the classical music event’s performances and broadened its offerings. This summer’s just-launched 30-concert lineup includes a salute to Benjamin Britten on the centennial of his birth, the Chicago premiere of Qigang Chen’s “Iris dévoilée” and performances of little-heard works like Carl Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto and John Adams’ “Harmonium.”

It’s just the kind of mix of familiar and unfamiliar that the 55-year-old Uraguayan-born maestro relishes. Kalmar spoke to the Sun-Times about the festival and the classical music world at large:

On performing at the Pritzker Pavilion: “It’s like driving a very old but really still functioning Ford and all of sudden they give you keys to a brand-new Mercedes that will last forever and has all the gadgets. Artistically speaking, this is a very different ballgame.” 

On his conducting role models: “I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever had role models. What I’ve had were three, maybe four, conductors that I have admired my entire life. It has never changed. I always admired Nikolaus Harnoncourt, because he is insanely musical. I always admired Herbert von Karajan, because despite all the controversy that it was all about himself, he was an amazing conductor. Phenomenal. I always loved Carlo Maria Giulini. Then it gets tricky, because there are so many. Take your pick.”

On Riccardo Muti: “When I was younger, I didn’t care so much for Riccardo Muti. Oh, I care for him a lot [now].  Life goes on and you learn a thing or two, and, oh, yes, that’s a great conductor.”

On what surprises him about working in the United States:  “The technical and rhythmic skills of the musicians I was working with. You don’t even say the words, ‘Let’s work on something very technical.’ It just works, the technical. You can immediately concentrate on the music only. The other thing that undoubtedly caught my attention was the discipline. You stop. Everybody is quiet, everybody listens.”

On today’s classical music scene: “For me, the thing that amazes me is that I can get together with a bunch of musicians, and we can make music together and grow together, and we can be unified with the audience. In that sense, everything and nothing has changed.”

On what depresses him about the scene: “Two things. First of all, the fact that here in the United States the way our financial model works, so many of orchestras and cultural entities get in serious trouble. It worries me, because it should not be that way. The other thing is that in our day and age, people are absolutely absorbed and fascinated by youth. Therefore, there are many very young musicians, especially in my profession ­— conductors, who all of sudden get enormous, amazing chances. This is a profession that you grow in, and it takes awhile until you figure it out. And the fact that just being young and talented, and you get offered the greatest orchestras in the world is not the right way.”

On composers we will be listening to in 100 years: “That’s a guessing game. John Adams — I wouldn’t be surprised. I hope James MacMillan. [Thomas] Adès — a great talent, but 100 years?”

On underappreciated composers: “I don’t know whether we have underappreciated composers. I would say we have underappreciated pieces. One of my favorite composers is Antonín Dvorák. We all know his Symphony No. 9, Symphony No. 8 and Symphony 7 and the Cello Concerto. End of story. I have done a lot of Dvorák beyond that, and it’s phenomenal. Why doesn’t anybody play that?”

Kyle MacMillan is a free-lance contributor.