The 48-year-old, born in Uruguay to Austrian parents, is a former music director of Vienna's Tonkunstlerorchester, a fine ensemble that plays in the hallowed Musikvereinsaal -- alas, in the shadow of the Vienna Philharmonic. Now he heads the Oregon Symphony and Chicago's Grant Park Music Festival; with the latter's orchestra, he is recording an enterprising series of CDs for the Cedille label. The L.A. Philharmonic seemed to respond well to him, following his dynamic body language and firm beat with gusto, if not always absolute precision in the strings.
For starters, Kalmar gave the nearly packed house a welcome taste of Janacek in the rare form of a suite from his fantasy opera, "The Cunning Little Vixen." True, it wasn't quite the real thing, for this de facto reorchestration of most of Act 1 was the work of the great Czech conductor Vaclav Talich, who removed some of the tang and acidic streaks of Janacek's instrumentation and imposed his own lusher, thicker, more conventional treatment. This is the way much of the world heard Janacek until about 30 years ago -- through well-meaning "translators." But even so, the power of his uniquely slashing, repetitive patterns and rambunctious moods could be felt, with tempos slightly on the slow side.
Next came a genuinely scarce species -- a concerto for bass viol and orchestra -- co-commissioned by the Philharmonic from its former composer in residence, John Harbison. As is often the case with this erudite composer, Harbison's compositional signature was hard to pin down. Rather, the playful left turns provided the 18-minute piece's best moments -- sudden outbursts of jazz-pizzicato walking bass; chugging brushed snare-drum strokes and blasts from the winds resembling a train; the Charleston syncopations; and weird interjections of the flexitone in the third movement. Longtime Philharmonic principal bass Dennis Trembly played the solo part from memory -- and played it to a turn.
Kalmar closed the evening with more Czech music, a rendition of Dvorak's Symphony No. 7 that developed a sweeping fervor and, at last in the finale, a good facsimile of a Czech lilt.