Arts and Humanities

Tonu Kalam retires after 36 years of beautiful music

The longtime conductor inspired and challenged the UNC Symphony Orchestra to perform brilliantly.

Black and white image of Tonu Kalam with text reading
Photo by Jane Hamborsky

Tonu Kalam will step away from the conductor’s podium to retire on June 30.

Since 1988, the professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ music department has guided the UNC Symphony Orchestra to create world-class performances and win a variety of prizes, including first place in the 2012 The American Prize in Orchestral Performance — College/University Division, for the video of its live performance of the Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances.

The orchestra often presented faculty and student musicians as concerto soloists and regularly collaborated with UNC Opera and choral ensembles on productions such as Britten’s “War Requiem,” Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” Mozart’s “Così fan tutte,” Brahms’ “German Requiem,” Poulenc’s “Gloria” and the Verdi “Requiem” in Murry Sidlin’s “Defiant Requiem” production.

The orchestra appeared on numerous occasions in Carolina Performing Arts series, including performances with world-renowned violinist Gil Shaham of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in 2015, of Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 4 in CPA’s “Glass at 80” festival in 2017 and Metropolitan Opera star mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard in 2020.

Kalam’s final concert as faculty conductor of the UNC Symphony Orchestra on April 24 included Brahms’ “Schicksalslied, Op. 54” with the UNC Chamber Singers and Carolina Choir.

Kalam also taught conducting courses and coached numerous chamber music ensembles.

Before Kalam’s retirement, the music department solicited congratulatory remarks from students, alumni and fellow faculty. Here are a few:

“Thank you for making orchestra an environment where students could completely forget about the anxieties that college naturally comes with, and where we could instead focus solely on creating beautiful music.” — Ayman Bejjani ’22

“Congratulations on your retirement and your career leading an amazing orchestra and influencing the lives of countless musicians!” — Cheryl Schlitter ’13, cellist, Raleigh Symphony Orchestra

“You are a brilliant musician and an amazing teacher. UNC has been so lucky to have you! I loved performing with you over the years. Those concerto concerts were some of my fondest memories! It’s hard to imagine UNC without you.” — Clara Yang, associate professor, UNC-Chapel Hill music department

“Best of luck in your retirement! I have had great experiences playing under your leadership, and I have learned very much from you. Your impact on our department has been immeasurable.” — Ryan Phillips ’24

“I learned so much about being an orchestral musician during my time at UNC, and I apply that experience to my work on a daily basis. I also revel in the moments where I get to program the ‘hidden gem’ pieces you introduced me to for my own orchestra. Thank you for your dedication to the music program at UNC.”  — Erin Lunsford Norton ’15, vice president of artistic planning, New Jersey Symphony