Spring for Music: Oregon Symphony

Conductor Carlos Kalmar leads the Oregon Symphony in music inspired by war. (Oregon Symphony)
Conductor Carlos Kalmar leads the Oregon Symphony in music inspired by war. (Oregon Symphony)

The concept behind the Oregon Symphony's concert tonight at the Spring for Music festival may seem ripped from the headlines. With the U.S. engaged in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the global response to terrorism fresh in people's minds, a program of war-themed works couldn't be more timely. But Carlos Kalmar, Oregon's music director, insists that current events played no part in the programming.

"I must say very clearly that we did not go towards that idea because we, as a human race, are in a time of war now," said the Uruguay-born Kalmar. "As a matter of fact, unfortunately, the human race is always at war somewhere with someone."

The evening traces a wartime journey, starting with Ives' The Unanswered Question, proceeding to John Adams' The Wound Dresser (with baritone Sanford Sylvan), then Britten's Sinfonia di Requiem, and finally, Vaughan Williams' turbulent Symphony No. 4.

"Yes, the music is about war but not every piece on the program was written specifically because of war," Kalmar notes, adding that the Ives work helps set up a philosophical point: "You could understand it as 'why on earth are we doing what we're doing to mankind?' Or 'why do people fight?' The good thing about the Ives is it can be used in so many different contexts."

At the heart of the program is Ralph Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 4, composed in the gathering gloom of Europe in 1934. "We can debate long and hard whether that has anything to do with war," Kalmar says. Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem, written in 1940, was ostensibly composed as a requiem memorial to his parents, but it was also the composer's reaction to the developing menace of the war.

Adams's The Wound-Dresser, a setting of Walt Whitman's poem, describes the poet's personal horror treating wounded soldiers just off the battlefield during the Civil War. It's also the only piece written specifically about war itself.

After two years of planning and extensive fundraising efforts — in many ways, a battle in itself — the Oregon Symphony's visit to Carnegie Hall marks the longest distance traveled by any orchestra in the Spring for Music festival. Kalmar believes that the pacing of the concert will be important, and that, given the grim subject matter, audiences shouldn't come expecting a happy ending.

"There is redemption in our concert, but not at the end," said Kalmar. "I think that is an important point. I don't think that anybody who goes to this concert will come out and think everything is alright. I think the pacing is good because nothing is alright. If we humans have to live with war, that is pretty much what the message should be."


Carlos Kalmar, music director


  • Charles Ives: The Unanswered Question
  • John Adams: The Wound-Dresser (feat. Sanford Sylvan, baritone)
  • Benjamin Britten: Sinfonia da Requiem
  • Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 4
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