After a long and assiduous search that started in 2011, the Alabama Symphony Orchestra named Carlos Izcaray as its new music director and conductor in January. On Friday, March 27, the orchestra gave a season preview performance so that the audience — which comprises casual fans and season ticket-holders alike — could see what they have to look forward to from the new maestro.
Izcaray replaces the very widely loved Justin Brown, who served in that capacity for six years. Under Brown’s direction, the orchestra won ASCAP Awards in 2010 and 2011 for Adventurous Programming and Dedication to New American Music and in 2012 gave their début performance at Carnegie Hall.
Brown is still the ASO’s “Music Director Laureate,” a symbol of the respect he earned from the fans, orchestra and staff. At the last concert he conducted as director, one of the violinists gave a slightly plaintive speech about Brown’s importance to the orchestra; the standing ovation at the end of it all lasted at least five minutes.
Izcaray has, in other words, a considerable task before him if he is to live up to the standard set by Brown. Fortunately for fans of the ASO, Izcaray seems very much capable as demonstrated by the audience’s enthusiastic response at the season preview on March 27 at the Alys Stephens Center. It should prove to have been worth the long search if this is to be the standard of play going forward.
The Venezuelan-born Izcaray, 37, is affable and energetic. This is a useful disposition for a man who will be taking up the baton in front of a dynamic ensemble like the ASO, which has become known as much for its audacity in programming — and its success in so consistently pulling off those daring programming decisions in concert — as for its high standard of play generally.
Namely, the ASO has been very active in débuting and otherwise performing music by modern composers. Since this can be a risky proposition in orchestral music, many ensembles stick with the never-stale stock of masterworks by the big names from Vienna, Hamburg, St. Petersburg and so on. Orchestras like the New York Philharmonic or the Berliner Philharmoniker have nothing to prove to anyone; they need only maintain their consistent reputation for excellence.
The ASO, conversely, is like Birmingham itself: an entity with the need and proven capacity for constant innovation. It is this sort of risk-taking that has won it the ASCAP Awards. Many who follow classical music consider it necessary in order to keep the form alive and engaging, particularly if it is to expand its reach to young audiences.
On that subject, speaking half an hour before the concert, Izcaray said, “I congratulate Maestro Brown for having established a good line of programming philosophy here with this orchestra, which they have continued. I feel that a lot of that work has been appreciated…and that’s another part that made it interesting for me [to come to Birmingham].”
He had just arrived in town from Berlin and was due to return there the following day, and there had been a mix-up: the maestro had been waiting to be interviewed in the lobby of his hotel rather than in the lobby of the symphony hall. None of this seemed to bother him particularly. He gave the impression of being accustomed to last-minute changes of plans.
Chance circumstances brought Izcaray to Birmingham in the first place. As it happens, he said, “One of the musicians who was in the [ASO’s] search committee was hired in one of his off-weeks to go and play as a substitute with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, which happened to be the week I was doing my U.S. symphonic début. … So next thing you know, seven days later I’m getting calls to come to the season opener…and it was all kind of a surprise.”
That season opener, in September 2014, was the first appearance Izcaray made with the ASO, and he made a strong impression on the orchestra’s board members. He gave another smaller performance in December and was hired shortly thereafter.
Asked whether he had been made to feel welcome in Birmingham, Izcaray jumped in almost before the question was fully formed:
“Oh absolutely, yes. I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t felt welcomed. Just the community, the orchestra, it just felt like a good match. My family, my wife…they made us both feel really welcomed, to the point that we said ‘Ok, this is worth coming here to the city to be a part of this.’”
When prompted about Birmingham’s seemingly upward trajectory and increasing vibrancy, he was similarly unequivocal: “Yes, that’s what I felt as well, so you know, when you feel that energy…”
He said he feels that there is a connection between the feeling of the city and the excellence of the ensemble itself, saying “I’ve always felt I wanted to have an ensemble where I could do interesting things, and that goes along with what they [the ASO] want to do and what the city wants to do.”
On these things, he was firm and decided.
The orchestra, he said avidly, is “just a fine, well-oiled machine in every sense: they’re expressive, they have a very well-refined sound that doesn’t come overnight. … They produce a very rich, powerful sound experience for the listener, and there is a virtuosity there as well.”
He elaborated further: “For example…our youngest musician is 22, and we get plenty of those just fresh out of college, but we also have some who have been playing in the orchestra since 1973.”
Visibly pleased at the thought of this, he continued, “You know, to have that collective of experiences, well-seasoned and young, I mean that, that’s a very special blend. And on top of that, also the staff and the people that collaborate with the orchestra, the community members who are part of what the orchestra is, they have a vision of what they want. They have high aspirations…to just keep setting higher and higher and higher standards.”
He said he is given a lot of creative license, with lead times of “seasons in advance” and a lot of latitude — minimal pressure, in other words, and with that the implication of a considerable degree of trust in his judgment. Indeed, speaking outside the venue before the concert, the orchestra’s Executive Director Curtis Long said that the board of directors was confident that it had arrived at the correct choice. He said that the community could expect to see the orchestra continue to thrive and improve under Izcaray’s leadership.
After good-naturedly fielding a couple of other slightly more specific questions, such as whether they will be performing any pieces for solo cello — Izcaray is a cellist himself, but he mostly demurred, saying he could not give away what the future programming would be — the maestro had to be going. With less than a half-hour until show time, Izcaray took his leave, not a hair out of place nor a nerve ending frayed.
The season preview concert consisted of six short pieces, mostly single movements from larger symphonic works played on their own. They varied in length but averaged approximately ten minutes apiece. Five were from familiar European heavy hitters, and they were all very lively interpretations.
Izcaray is a treat to watch: he is expressive and lively in front of the ensemble, not the stodgy caricature that some people imagine an orchestra conductor to be. He also addressed the crowd a couple of times by way of introduction, cracking a few jokes and expressing his gratitude to the city and the orchestra, saying that he and the ensemble had been “having fun since the first time we met in September.”
Of the big-name European pieces, the major standouts were a magisterial rendition of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, which got a very loud and prolonged round of applause; and the fourth (and final) movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op. 13, which closed the show.
The Coriolan Overture is, in more than one sense, an archetypal Beethoven piece: it is wild and tempestuous, full of the sturm und drang — which roughly translates from German as “Storm and Stress” — that characterizes much of his work. It opens with dark minor chords voiced by the lower register of the string section, supported with rumbling percussion. It oscillates dramatically throughout, amounting to an aural approximation of a thunderstorm. The ASO took the opportunity to showcase its full dynamic range with this short work, and the audience gave an extended ovation in appreciation.
The Tchaikovsky is significant — in addition to its inherent musical appeal — in that its title is Winter Dreams, which is also the name of a series celebrating Tchaikovsky’s work that the ASO will do in the opening months of 2016. The fourth movement, performed at the season preview concert, is a melodic but powerful passage. Again, the ASO did it full justice under Izcaray’s direction, closing out the concert on a high note complete with strong horns, percussion, and clashing cymbals.
Also excellent were pieces from Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 in A major, Op. 90 (commonly known as the Italian), Handel’s Suite No. 2 in D major, and Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90. The Mendelssohn, in particular, gave the orchestra’s string section a chance to show off its warmth and force.
Perhaps most remarkable, though, was the response to a modern piece by Paul Desenne, who, like Izcaray, is Venezuelan and a cellist. Desenne will also be the composer-in-residence for the ASO this coming season. The piece, called “Palenkumbé”, showcased the reason the ASO has been lauded for championing new music. It is fascinating, modulating tempo and pitch freely without ever seeming wild or forced. At its close, the audience responded with very loud applause and cheers, perhaps the loudest of the night. Again, if this is the standard being set, then the orchestra is in very good hands.
Also certainly of note, there were an encouraging number of younger people at the concert. Classical music’s reputation as a musty old form with nothing to offer the average teenager can be a difficult one to combat, but this is made much easier with a conductor and orchestra like Izcaray and the ASO.
One such person was Jacob Giles, a junior from Chelsea High School, who said it was his first time seeing the orchestra in person. He said he thought highly of the performance and of Izcaray, who, he said, “really put a lot of emotion into it.” When asked whether he thought he would be back, his answer was quick and clear: “Definitely, yes. I loved it.”
Izcaray will be in Berlin for a little while longer, but he and his family will be moving to Birmingham full-time in September, giving orchestra fans something to look forward to after enduring the long summer months. This will also give them plenty of time to make sure to bring their friends and family along to see one of Birmingham’s newest cultural assets fully in action for the first time.