Carlos Kalmar leads Grant Park Music Festival with a sense of discovery

Tue Jun 11, 2013 at 2:54 pm

By Angelika Labno

Carlos Kalmar will open the Grant Park Music Festival’s 79th season Wednesday night with music of Mozart and Tchaikovsky. Photo: Norman Timonera

What does it take to create the vision for a world-class music festival?

“The word ‘discovery’ comes to mind,” said Carlos Kalmar, artistic director and principal conductor of the Grant Park Music Festival. “Our audience is incredibly happy if the music takes them to a territory that they don’t hear often.”

That will be the case once again as the lakefront festival opens its 79th season Wednesday night at the Pritzker Pavilion. Carlos Kalmar will lead the Grant Park Orchestra in Drip by Andrew Norman, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 and Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 with soloist Stefan Jackiw.

As always this summer’s programs will range far and wide, juxtaposing classic programs of Dvořák and Shostakovich with such offbeat items as Iris Dévoilée by Chinese composer Qigang Chen (June 21 and 22). Also notable is the centennial celebration of Benjamin Britten with a performance of his War Requiem June 28 and 29.

The energetic maestro has been labeled with many adjectives from critics, but perhaps Kalmar’s best quality as a conductor boils down to curiosity.

For the past 13 years, the maestro has helped define the festival’s identity with eclecticism and a passion for adventure. While Kalmar has conducted all over the world, being the driving force behind an American festival presents the challenge of introducing hidden treasures from the European classical tradition in addition to presenting rarely heard American works.

Kalmar’s cosmopolitan background stems from a childhood in Uruguay, musical studies in Vienna and orchestral positions throughout Europe. Likewise, the diversity of Chicago’s audiences guides his repertoire, Kalmar explains.

“Being a free festival, we can absolutely plan things that other festivals cannot do,” he said, “and that gives greater artistic freedom.

“Sometimes we bring a piece from an old composer that has not been played at all or very, very little,” he said. “One example is the Mass in E Flat by Schubert. That is a piece that outside of Germany or Austria is not well known, yet it’s one of the most important pieces that he wrote.”

Hectic as the Grant Park rehearsal and performance schedule can be, the summer in Chicago offers a hiatus from directing the Oregon Symphony in Portland. In their past decade together, the symphony has enjoyed tremendous growth and even received Grammy nominations.

In the past year, however, financial troubles have led to a cancellation of the Oregon Symphony’s scheduled return to Carnegie Hall after a triumphant 2011 stand. Even more pressing, to close a budget gap, just two weeks ago the Oregon musicians accepted $315,000 in salary cuts, waiving the annual, end-of-season payment (about 2.5 weeks of salary) as well as their 2.6 percent salary increase for the 2013-14 season.

Kalmar views the financial challenge as adjusting to the circumstances, as he plans to instead tweak his original vision.

“We need to address our financial challenges, but the most important challenge that we have on the artistic side is working together, and I want to work with everyone together to create a vision for the orchestra,” said Kalmar.  “Not that we don’t have one, but I believe that after a certain amount of years, the vision that you have at first has to evolve and maybe you have to create a different one.”

Despite the financial issues and flexibility required, Kalmar says he is still living his dream of growing together with an orchestra, pitfalls and all.

“The orchestra has been really great in understanding that and making themselves a part of the solution,” Kalmar added. “We all need the money–no kidding–but in the end, we want to play concerts and entertain our respective community. The idea of music and family is incredibly important, and that happened in Oregon to an extent that nobody expected. Their sense of togetherness is very unique.”

“I am blessed and am very aware that I have two musical families. Chicago is a great city, and it will always be a place that is so close to my heart.”

Carlos Kalmar opens the Grant Park Music Festival 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Pritzker Pavilion. The program includes Drip by Andrew Norman, Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 with soloist Stefan Jackiw and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. Admission is free.

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