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Oregon Symphony leader falls in love with Portland, music
by: Leah Nash, The Oregon Symphony, led by conductor and music director Carlos Kalmar, was chosen as one of only seven orchestras selected to play in the Spring for Music festival at Carnegie Hall in New York on May 12.

The Oregon Symphony season, with conductor and music director Carlos Kalmar presiding in his eighth season, has begun and hits full swing Oct. 2 to 4 with a debut Portland appearance by famed violinist Hilary Hahn.

'It's a very good year,' says Kalmar, the Uruguay-born conductor of Austrian heritage. 'And the way next year is already being planned, it's also going to be really good. Our reputation has been growing over the past three or four years, we're getting a lot of interest from some really good name people.'

The highlight will be the Oregon Symphony's first appearance at Carnegie Hall in New York on May 12, 2011, as part of the Spring for Music festival. The symphony applied to play at Carnegie, and became one of only seven orchestras selected to play in the festival. It's a big deal.

As a preview to its Carnegie appearance, the symphony the week before will give two nights of concerts titled, 'Music for a Time of War,' at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, its home venue.

Kalmar, 52, joined the Oregon Symphony in 2003, and his contract has been extended through 2013. He has led orchestras throughout the United States, Europe and Asia, and he also serves as principal conductor for the Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago. In 2011, he becomes music director of the Spanish Radio/Television Orchestra in Madrid.

Kalmar speaks German, Spanish and English fluently, and 'I can defend myself in Italian and French - I can order more than a beer,' he jokes.

The symphony season, which includes concerts under pops conductor Jeff Tyzik and others, runs through May, culminating with the Carnegie Hall appearance. There has been some turnover with the symphony, with retirements, and the exit of principal flutist David Buck to the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

The Tribune caught up with Kalmar to talk about a variety of topics:

Tribune: The Oregon Symphony has been around since the 1800s, and never been to Carnegie?

Kalmar: In America, playing at the Carnegie Hall is the top. You can go to Carnegie by buying yourself into the hall, which costs an insane amount of money. Then, you play a concert and nobody's going to go - it's very competitive. We didn't do that. We applied for it, the new festival. Every orchestra in the country and Canada could apply. It's a very interesting festival and I'm sure it'll go very well.

Tribune: It'll be a thrill for symphony members to play there; a thrill for you?

Kalmar: It's a big deal to go there with my own musical family and all the Oregonians going with me. I've never been there. In terms of the great halls of the world, I've probably been in many of them. In terms of reputation, it's Carnegie, Amsterdam Concertgebouw and Vienna Golden Hall and, I believe on top of the world is Vienna Golden Hall, where I've made about 25 appearances.

Tribune: You live part of the year in Vienna, but do you enjoy the United States and Portland?

Kalmar: I adore it. I've lived in Vienna since 1973, and my life changed dramatically when I came to Portland. People have been very welcoming. It's very liberal in character. What I tell people abroad about U.S. cities in general, with the exceptions of big ones like New York and Chicago, is there is a center of town that, come 5 p.m. Friday, it's dead. Nobody there. Portland is not like that. People don't go away. It's a little San Francisco, which is very good.

Tribune: Tell us about some of the 2010-11 symphony highlights. Hilary Hahn (Oct. 2-4)?

Kalmar: I was surprised it was her first time here. For 12 or 13 years she has been at the top of the world, even though she's still a young woman. She said Portland is an important city with quite a reputation for classical music and for the quality of the Oregon Symphony. Hilary was very happy when we could work out these days. … There has been this direction where we focus on young players, and on top of that in the past 15 years, tremendously talented young female violinists. Hilary and Sarah Chang, yes, they are good looking, but they can play something out of these instruments.

Tribune: British pianist Stephen Hough (Nov. 20-22)?

Kalmar: It'll be his fourth time here during my tenure. He's not 25 (much older), so the rule of the very young players doesn't apply. He's so quality. He works with all the great orchestras in the country. Stephen and I adore to work together.

Tribune: Cellist Yo-Yo Ma (Dec. 5, sold out)?

Kalmar: One of probably three or four names in the United States that will automatically fill a hall, even one as big as the Schnitzer. You cannot get a ticket for that performance. Yo-Yo is phenomenal, it'll be my first time working with him, and it's been awhile since he's been in Portland.

Tribune: Pianist Yuja Wang (Feb. 5-7)?

Kalmar: I heard about Yuja through a donor, and pretty much everybody in the business said, 'Oh yeah, that's quite a ticket.' Young Chinese female pianist. Everybody tells me she's technically absolutely perfect and very energetic and brings something to the audience, which (her program) Rachmaninoff does anyway.

Tribune: How does a boy growing up in Uruguay become enraptured with classical music?

Kalmar: My parents are Austrian and fled to South America during World War II, and had two sons. (Classical music) just came from nowhere. There is no musician in my family. I didn't hear voices (laughs). My parents always encouraged us and took us to concerts. They noticed that I was extremely interested in what was going on and asked me, 'Do you want to learn an instrument?' I said yes, of course. I learned the violin, and ever since age 6 I always wanted to be a musician.

Tribune: You like to hike - visiting Utah recently - as well as cook and read. What about listening to other music?

Kalmar: I am fortunately a classical music nerd. I would pretty much never listen to music as a background. My attention will go to the music. Sometimes I feel I should spend more time in different fields of music, but it hasn't come to that. The classical music world is so magnificently large, it requires more than a lifetime to really get to know classical music.

Tribune: So, you won't be attending a rock concert anytime soon?

Kalmar: I always say to friends who tease me, I will go to a concert of rock 'n' roll in a heartbeat, immediately, 'Please take me.' But, turn down the volume, please. I cannot handle the amount of sound; not only because (the ear) is my capital, but because I don't like the pain. I like the music.