Profile of Carlos Kalmar

August 20, 2010

Writer Tom Mullaney profiles Grant Park Music Festival's Principal Conductor Carlos Kalmar's conducting career and musical achievements.

Conductor Carlos Kalmar claims that the Mahler Second Symphony "Resurrection", which he played with the Grant Park Orchestra in 1999, helped him land the job of Principal Conductor. Given that history, it seems fitting that he should reprise the score this weekend to mark the successful completion of his 10th Anniversary season.

Kalmar has a good deal to be proud of: molding a good orchestra into an even greater ensemble; the transformational move from an acoustically-challenged Petrillo Music Shell to the sonically-superior Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park (attendance has skyrocketed from 120,000 in 2003 to 300,000 in 2009) conducting a wide variety of adventurous repertoire; showcasing the works of American composers; leading performances of the highest caliber in recent seasons, notably the incandescent Mahler 9th and Beethoven 9th to end the 2009 season.

Millennium Park regulars know this musical figure primarily by his leonine mane and what critics have termed his “propulsive” and “athletically vigorous” performance style. Yet, beyond that, who is he?

Kalmar was born in 1958 of Austrian parents in Montevideo, Uruguay and went to study in Vienna at the age of 15. His conducting career took off when he won the Hans Swarowsky Conducting Competition in Vienna in 1984. He made his debut the following year with the NDR Symphony in Hamburg.

He gained valuable experience heading several German orchestras over the next 15 years. Kalmar made his American debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2000, the same year he was appointed Principal Conductor of the Grant Park Orchestra. In 2003, he was named Music Director of the Oregon Symphony, the oldest orchestra west of the Mississippi. Most recently, he added the music directorship of Madrid’s Orquestra Sinfonica which he assumes in the 2011-2012 season.

Kalmar says he is a musician whose main mission is simply “making music at the highest level with my musical family”. He spoke highly in an interview of his summer colleagues, drawn from such top orchestras as the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera, Milwaukee, Buffalo, Kansas City and Seattle Symphony.

“These ten years in Chicago have been a blessing for me. When I arrived, it was a very good group of musicians. Now, it’s an excellent orchestra.” He speaks proudly of their familiarity with one another which enables them to know and learn repertoire quickly. Kalmar has also recorded six CD releases with the orchestra for Cedille Records.

He appears a man content in both his personal and musical life; not someone caught up in music world games. Asked if he found it difficult to be properly recognized in Chicago, a city with an abundance of world-class conductors in Riccardo Muti, James Conlon, Pierre Boulez and Andrew Davis, Kalmar laughed. “If I started thinking of that (comparisons with Muti, I would leave music. I don’t lose any sleep over that.”

There is good reason not to worry. When James Palermo, head of the Grant Park Music Festival from 1995-2009, was looking to hire a music director ten years ago, he remembers several musicians approached him after a rehearsal of the Mahler Second and telling him, “This guy is terrific.” The next nine years validated that assessment. “He knows the music and the scores better than anyone else,” says Palermo. “He’s an incredible rehearsal technician.”

Kalmar substituted this season, on short notice, with the Chicago and Boston Symphony Orchestras. At 52, he has a long career, with higher achievements, ahead of him. Palermo, his working colleague for nine seasons and currently president and CEO of the Colorado Symphony, holds him in high regard. “He’s built a career for himself from the ground up. He’s done it the old-fashioned way, through hard work. It’s his time to shine and he deserves whatever comes his way.”

Tom Mullaney, Arts and About