A season of change

Oregon Symphony loses star conductor

The Oregon Symphony will play its last season with internationally acclaimed conductor and music director Carlos Kalmar in the 2020-21 season, performing works by 15 living composers, five U.S. or world premieres and four original commissioned works. 


At the symphony’s season announcement at the Oregon Historical Society on Feb. 6, Kalmar addressed an audience of longtime symphony supporters and benefactors about the upcoming season and his departure. Kalmar—a globally recognized, Grammy-nominated conductor—said to the crowd, “Trust me, I am very honored to be the director of this fantastic ensemble and extremely honored to be a member of this community. But all good things must come to an end.”


The upcoming season—dubbed the “Ultimate Season”—will honor Kalmar’s 18-year tenure at the Oregon Symphony and celebrate his legacy in elevating the orchestra to a new level. Kalmar spoke about this as well, saying, “When I became a conductor, I did not develop the goal to become the director of the New York or Berlin Philharmonic, but rather [I wanted] to go to an orchestra and grow with them.” In the 18 years since Kalmar’s appointment, the symphony has expanded dramatically in audience, been nominated for two Grammys and introduced its Sound series, challenging listeners to think “beyond the concert hall”. 


This year’s SoundStories will feature three programs exploring the question: “Who has the right to be heard in our society?” featuring works from an Austrian Jewish composer who fled the Nazis, a piano concerto written for only left hand by a composer with cerebral palsy, and a new work by creative chair Gabriel Kahane exploring the right to be forgotten in the digital age.


The last season conducted by Kalmar will conclude with a program headlining Mahler’s Symphony No. 9. Mahler and Kalmar share an Austrian origin and a musical history in Vienna. Jack Horne, a supporter of the symphony, cited “[Kalmar’s] love of Mahler” as a reason for his continued support of the symphony. “He conducts Mahler with such a passion. You can see it.” 


When asked what he had planned for life after his departure from the Oregon Symphony, Kalmar had few concrete answers. “There are a bunch of possibilities…I might take a little break from being a music director to take a step back and look in from the outside while still working with great orchestras.” Kalmar, 61, noted that he’s held the title of music director almost his entire professional life. “I will very likely move, but my heart is still here [in Portland]…I live here. I don’t just come in to conduct, I live here.” 


The replacement process for the position is still ongoing, but the trajectory of the Oregon Symphony is set. The season after Kalmar’s departure will mark the symphony’s 125th season. Beyond that, the mission of expanding the symphony’s setting and repertoire will continue. “Whoever [the new conductor] is will have their own idea of what they like to program,” said James Shields, principal clarinet. “An orchestra always has this problem of balancing core repertoire with new stuff…we can’t just keep playing Beethoven and Brahms as much as we might want to…Carlos was really good at that balance.” 


Russel Kelban, the new Oregon Symphony VP of Marketing, told Vanguard that it was the Oregon Symphony’s commitment to expanded repertoire and diversifying performers and audiences that led him to move north from his position at the San Francisco Symphony. “We’re taking those chances, those risks,” Kelban said. “It’s more accessible, more diverse here.” 


The new music director will have their work cut out for them maintaining the legacy that Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony have built. 


A full list of upcoming programming and tickets are available at orsymphony.org