Oregon Symphony hopes for resurgence under new musical leadership

By Steven Tonthat (OPB)
March 23, 2021 1 p.m.
David Danzmayr will take over as the Oregon Symphony's music director after its previous director, Carlos Kalmar, stepped down in 2020.

David Danzmayr will take over as the Oregon Symphony's music director after its previous director, Carlos Kalmar, stepped down in 2020.

Courtesy Oregon Symphony

When David Danzmayr first joined the Oregon Symphony in 2018 as a guest conductor, it only took 15 minutes for him to know that it was the right place for him.


“I remember we started with Brahms’ First Symphony, and there was immediately a sound that I thought was not only attractive, but that was meaningful to the piece,” he said. “And it was before I had said a single word. And this kind of connection, and this kind of offer from an orchestra in terms of sound, and in terms of playing, is for me very attractive.”

So when it came time for the symphony to choose a new music director for the upcoming 2021-22 season, it was no surprise that Danzmayr was a top candidate.

“We sought an extraordinary leader with high artistic standards to grow this multi-Grammy-nominated ensemble, an eagerness to partner with our musicians to create world-class music, a dynamic ability to connect with children and adults in our hall and throughout our community, and a vision for the Oregon Symphony’s role in the future of classical music,” Oregon Symphony CEO Scott Showalter wrote in an email to OPB.

“In David, we found exactly that leader.”

Danzmayr will take on the role after the symphony’s previous director, Carlos Kalmar stepped down in 2020. The process of replacing Kalmar took roughly four and a half years, after he announced in 2016 that the 2020/21 season would be his last.

The symphony considered more than 700 conductors, and in the end, Danzmayr’s history as a guest conductor, personal relationship with Kalmar, and commitment to bring new and exciting music to Oregon were what appealed to everyone.

“Beyond the stage, he is committed to connect with those who have limited access to live music. Given the Oregon Symphony’s longstanding engagement programs in schools, correctional facilities, immigration centers, retirement homes, and beyond, David proved a perfect fit,” Showalter wrote.

Danzmayr knew from a young age that he wanted to be a conductor.

“Practically as long as I can remember, I was fascinated with the role of the conductor when I saw it in concerts. I love music. I love orchestra music, and I like working with people. So, I think that’s where part of this background come from. But I can’t really explain it,” he said.

As a child in Austria, Danzmayr attended concerts with his father, who was a musician and conductor, and experienced the wonder of the symphony.

“My father had access to a lot of great concerts, because he was, besides being a composer and a conductor, was working for Salzburg Radio, and producing some of the Festival concerts,” he said. “And so, for me, it was normal to listen to Berlin Philharmonic and Vienna Philharmonic, and listening to the best orchestras in the world from a young age on.”

While working as a conductor in Scotland, Danzmayr came to the U.S. as the music director of the Illinois Philharmonic in Chicago. As his career grew, so did interest from other symphonies, including the Oregon Symphony.

“After conducting two times there, I didn’t only know the orchestra I got to know Scott [Showalter] who I have a very, very high opinion of,” he said. “I met people from the board who were throughout not only friendly, but motivated, and thoughtful. I got to speak to a couple of musicians. I met backstage staff, and other staff members.”

The bond between Kalmar and Danzmayr dates back to their meeting in Scotland. It wasn’t the first Kalmar-Danzmayr connection.

“Carlos came to be a guest conductor. And so, I said, ‘Hello.’ He’s like, ‘Danzmayr, are you related to Wolfgang Danzmayr?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s my dad.’... And so, he tells the story that my father was apparently the head of the jury, when Carlos was in his early 20s. And he won his first conducting competition. And my father was the head of the jury of the competition!” he said.


They remained in touch ever since.

“I am extremely pleased with the appointment of David as the Oregon Symphony’s new Music Director,” Kalmar said via email. “I wish David long-term success with the Oregon Symphony and I’m confident that he will thoroughly enjoy the musical journey with the Symphony musicians, staff and community,”

Kalmar’s influence is well known in Oregon. During his tenure, the Oregon Symphony received four Grammy nominations and brought in record amounts of revenue.

Danzmayr is excited to build upon his predecessor’s work and continue to provide world class music to Oregon’s music-loving audience.

“The idea shouldn’t be, ‘Yeah, let’s get rid of everything and change everything.’ The idea should be, ‘OK. Let’s see where we go from here.’ We are in a very good level. And we, of course, want to look forward to even getting higher and kind of like getting the excitement,” he said.

Danzmayr’s premiere season will see the creation of a new Creative Alliance. The Alliance is a group of musicians who will work with the Oregon symphony to inspire and challenge the audience with their own unique musical experiences and explores meaningful issues facing the community.

“The Creative Alliance is a way for me to show that ... I am the music director, but we have put together a team of people, basically, who are all very interesting, and very intelligent musicians, and who can bring their own perspectives and their own ideas to the Oregon Symphony,” he said.

The artists who are a part of the Alliance are Gabriel Kahane, Jun Markl, Simone Lamsma, Gabriela Lena Frank, Johannes Moser, and Nathalie Joachim.

“Nathalie Joachim, who will be a composer-performer on stage with us and will perform a piece that is very much inspired by her Haitian heritage,” he said. “I come from Austria, I don’t have Haitian heritage. So, I cannot bring that to the orchestra, but she can. And she’s a singer. I am not a singer. I can’t bring it to the orchestra. But she can.”

Danzmayr will take over at a time when the symphony, like many arts organizations, is still feeling the effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Revenue dropped to zero in 2020 and the symphony relied on donations from the community as well as funds from the federal CARES Act. This year, they hope to rebound from the lost revenue.

“Through regular surveys and other feedback, we know that confidence is building to return to the hall. In fact, subscription renewals already are exceeding the forecasts. Our community is hungry for live and in-person music once again,” Showalter wrote.

Showalter said that the symphony is implementing different strategies to regain the audience’s interest for the upcoming season.

“We have installed the Meyer Constellation Acoustic System, a revolutionary technology that provides ideal acoustics for every seat in the hall. Also, for the first time in our history, we plan to stream several programs to subscribers at home.”

But even with the uncertainty, Danzmayr is optimistic about the upcoming season.

The 2021/22 season will open in October with Danzmayr conducting Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony. Some other favorites will include Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony and Handel’s “Messiah” featuring the Portland State University Chamber Choir.

Kalmar will also return in May 2022 as the Oregon Symphony’s conductor laureate to conduct Mahler’s Symphony No. 9.

With all the new changes and safety protocols, what’s remained constant, Danzmayer said, is people’s joy for live music, something he hopes to bring back to the people of Oregon.

“A lot of people really love classical music. And so we are there to provide that for them. We are there not as a self-serving unit. We are there to provide the audience spectacular experiences that make their life better. That can give them something absolutely unique and something magical,” he said.

The Oregon Symphony’s 2021/22 season premieres Oct. 2.


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