The Alabama Symphony Orchestra welcomes the renowned Carlos Izcaray as music director.
Written by Phillip Ratliff
Photography by Beau Gustafson
It’s a warm June night in Railroad Park, and an estimated 5,000 people are spread out on the park lawn, waiting to see the Alabama Symphony. The fact that this is a free concert is no doubt a factor in the palpable excitement, but surely several in the throng have come to see the ASO’s new music director, Carlos Izcaray, lead his first outdoor concert. Izcaray comes to Birmingham from Berlin, one of Europe’s main hubs for international artists. From there he would travel the world to conduct symphony orchestras such as those from St. Louis, Kitchener-Waterloo, Bangkok, Malmö, Macedonian Philharmonic, National Symphony Orchestra of Colombia, Kwazulu-Natal Philharmonic in South Africa, and opera productions at the National Opera House of Ireland, Gran Teatro Nacional de Peru, Utah Opera, and many other venues across five continents. He moved to Birmingham this month to take over as music director at ASO.
I suspect that I am, like many in attendance, eager to see how Izcaray asserts his own vision for the orchestra in the wake of the ASO’s arguably most successful artistic director, Justin Brown. During his 10-year tenure, Brown transformed the ASO, reimagining what regional orchestras could accomplish artistically and critically. Brown’s embrace of contemporary music earned the ASO two coveted ASCAP Awards for adventurous programming and dedication to new American music. In 2012, the ASO earned an invitation to compete at the Spring For Music Festival at Carnegie Hall. Though written only a couple of years into his tenure, Alex Ross’s gushing 2006 profile of Brown and the symphony in The New Yorker encapsulates all that he and the ASO would eventually become. Brown will be a tough act for Izcaray to follow.
As if to amp up the challenge, Izcaray has programmed an ambitious concert for his Railroad Park debut, including works by Copland, Liszt, Brahms, and Mozart. Although Izcaray seems supremely confident on stage, I wonder if the subtleties of these pieces will work once pushed through speaker towers across an expanse of green space. And I wonder if Izcaray is deliberately extending the boundaries of what attendees of a free outdoor concert are willing to ingest. Will the crowd grow restless when they don’t get their John Williams medley?
But Izcaray runs toward challenges, and as he reminded me during a recent interview, this isn’t a pops concert—although the performance is constructed along lines that audiences will hopefully find clear and accessible. Izcaray selected most of the pieces either for their celebratory quality or for popular associations, from Brahms’ Academic Overture, which recalls a graduation ceremony, to Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, which recalls, in the minds of many, a Bugs Bunny cartoon. There are other tunes Izcaray hopes people recognize through cultural osmosis, like Mozart’s overture to his opera, The Magic Flute. And there’s one piece, Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, that Izcaray hopes will connect with his American audience as they sit in the foothills of the very mountain range.
This easygoing embrace of environment, both the landscape and the people who inhabit it, emerged as an Izcaray trademark during our interview. Izcaray’s taste in music, I quickly learned, is broad, ranging from Stockhausen and Stravinsky to Top 40. The direction his musical career has taken is also broad, to include work on both sides of the podium. Propelling his musical tastes and career arc is an impulse to be curious and experimental. And beneath that, I think, is a profound humility, a willingness to incorporate other opinions, to meet musical styles and audiences on their own terms.
One gets a taste of this in an online performance of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, led by Izcaray and performed by the Cambridge University Musical Society. (You should Google it.) The performance is mature, even though the performers are of college age and the piece is a tricky one, filled with Stravinsky’s ironic appropriations of classical symphonic style. Symphony in Three Movements typifies the sort of layered Stravinsky I love, at once angular and formalistic and accepting of some degree of restrained interpretive finesse.
As a musician, Izcaray weaves together many threads—performer, conductor, educator, and concert programmer. More recently, Izcaray has taken up composing. What I think could be easy to miss is Izcaray’s prowess as an administrator. Izcaray stands before the audience as the public face, but backstage, and working through the crowd, one sees a small army of ASO personnel with ideas of their own about how success is calibrated, all of which must inform Izcaray’s decisions. The modern symphony orchestra relies on such individuals to lead market surveys to uncover what audiences are willing to shell out money to hear, wrangle corporate dollars, and create buzz. Branding is important. A pops concert, a Classical Edge concert, a Masterworks series—each attracts a certain sort of audience. Because ticket sales pay only a fraction of the cost of mounting a performance, orchestras rely heavily on development offices to find corporate sponsors seeking exposure among symphony crowds while writing off their donations as tax deductions.
At the center of this web of branding, fundraising, and audience surveying is Izcaray. He’ll become the final arbiter of how the public’s fickle taste is fed. If what Izcaray offers up is palatable, he makes it as easy as selling classical music can possibly be for the ASO PR and marketing gurus to drive ticket sales. And the butts he helps place in seats mean that the development department can deliver on the promise of audience exposure to sponsors, sponsors who fill financial gaps and meet the ASO’s $6 million annual budget. Throughout this chain of events, Izcaray can never forget who he leads—an orchestra of 50+ individuals, all capable and highly trained in their own right. “As much as I enjoy conducting around the world as a guest artist, there comes a time when one also wishes to develop a deeper relationship with a fine ensemble, ideally in a city that aspires to great things,” Izcaray says. “With the Alabama Symphony Orchestra I encountered a very talented group of sensitive and intelligent professional musicians, a beautiful concert hall, and a Birmingham community that is vibrant, friendly, curious, and eager for more.
“I do have a dozen bees buzzing around my ears when I program. My appetite is very wide and generous. I like all sorts of music, in every genre. The artist planning department, marketing—one strives to consider them and hit the right balance. You don’t want to be superficial. It’s a deep element of the human experience,” Izcaray says. The deeply human element of music is something that Izcaray is uniquely prepared for. He is well traveled and has trained in the best schools. He has spent time in the classroom. Thanks to his arts administrator mother, he has an appreciation for the intricacies of the business end of music. But first and foremost, he is a seasoned musician who has spent his whole life immersed in his craft. Izcaray’s father is a singer and conductor who migrated to the orchestra world around the same time El Sistema, Venezuela’s phenomenon of public youth orchestras, was emerging. At the age of 3, Izcaray studied with his father in El Sistema before moving on to conservatory training.
It may be Izcaray’s experience as an educator that distinguishes his tenure with the ASO. Izcaray has conducted youth orchestras, led conducting workshops, and taught hundreds of students in El Sistema. While respectful of whom he’s following, Izcaray isn’t daunted by Brown’s legacy. I don’t think we should look for a Justin 2.0. Izcaray will apply new talents—his passion for early music education and community building through music chief among them. “I am the son of a music educator. It is what brought bread and butter to my household. To me, music education is such an essential part of education, period. Music is an essential part of the fabric of society. You can bet on it—I will be at the front line trying to bring as much as possible to the Birmingham community,” Izcaray says.
Music education will continue to take two forms. There will be general educational opportunities, like young people’s concerts and classroom-based outreach. And there’s a more specific sort of music education, designed for budding performers. This might entail lessons on instruments, the forming and coaching music ensembles, and leading the Alabama Symphony Youth Orchestra.
Izcaray’s vision to see symphonic permeate Birmingham’s artistic landscape, but I don’t think we’ll always see Izcaray asserting a European classical music vision. Rather, Izcaray seems intent on not just permeating Birmingham with his product, but absorbing Birmingham into it. His programming of Appalachian Spring with Red Mountain in view was a nod in that direction. Izcaray’s work as a composer telegraphs this impulse. Izcaray’s latest composition is an orchestral work titled Cota Mil, named for a road in Caracas, Venezuela. The contours of the road determine the shape and energy of Cota Mil, the composition, Izcaray says. Somewhat like that scene in Railroad Park, Cota Mil stands between a sprawling urban center and a serene mountain range.
It is the same sort of juncture, part urban, part natural, that Izcaray would explore in Appalachian Spring. By the Railroad Park concert, Izcaray had already spent several hours with his new orchestra rehearsing it and the rest of his program. By 7 p.m., he is obviously eager to take the podium, lift his baton, and let music fly. He says he has gratitude for where Brown has taken the orchestra, which he balances with a solid sense of where he himself hopes to take the ASO: “The quality of what I heard from the very first rehearsal is a testament to both the great organic evolution the ensemble has undergone from music director to music director. Getting a great symphony orchestra is a great honor and great responsibility. I feel great respect for Justin’s work here. There are many, many things that are attuned to what I like to do,” he says. Izcaray imagines a slightly larger ensemble, which would allow the ASO to expand its repertoire. Expect the ASO to explore new concert formats and technological applications, which might include developing a “smart orchestra.” And expect a more casual vibe at concerts. There will be no stuffiness at ASO concerts, Izcaray says. “You won’t feel that with me. Why should we pretend to be anything but the local band?” he says.
And above all, Izcaray says, expect an orchestra that Birmingham will be proud to call its own. “I want the orchestra to be a source of pride for the average Birminghamian. It is already a really good ensemble, with fantastic musicians. There seems to be something going on in this city. There’s a vibrancy. I want the orchestra to be a pillar of this progress, to show the relevance of the city, regionally, in the whole country,” Izcaray says.