The Alabama Symphony Orchestra is settling in comfortably under the leadership of the recently appointed conductor and music director, Venezuelan-born Carlos Izcaray. He was confirmed in that role by the ASO’s executive committee in January of this year, but he did not officially assume the role until September 1, when he and his family relocated to Birmingham from Berlin.
Izcaray replaced Brown, who is now in Germany conducting the Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe and is designated by the ASO as its Music Director Laureate. Brown lead the orchestra very successfully: during his tenure the ensemble picked up two prestigious ASCAP Awards and gave its first-ever performance at Carnegie Hall. Izcaray has said that he operates with this in mind, and he is consciously trying to continue where Brown left off to build a lasting legacy for the ASO.
Izcaray is continuing to place an emphasis on reaching out to his new community, including people who are not already regular concertgoers — particularly young people. On September 15, he spoke to an audience at the Altamont School, consisting of students, parents and teachers. Asked about what was needed in order to get young people in the seats, he stressed “a balance between parent cooperation, and also the ensemble itself: it needs to be open and smart about approaching a young audience.”
During that event, he also mentioned the performance the ASO gave in cooperation with the band Wye Oak on March 16 as part of its Classical Edge series, a show which he said attracted a lot of younger people who perhaps might not have otherwise been at the symphony. The Classical Edge series, Izcaray said, “is where we test ourselves. … This is one of the things that I love about this orchestra: we don’t just play the known repertoire and things that are easy, but we play stuff that we don’t know. And if we don’t know it, then nobody knows it, and that’s part of the process, part of the creative process.”
Furthermore, he recommended to the younger students a mix of “almost military rigor” — involving the use of things like a metronome and a clock and, of course, a tuner — and setting clear goals. He stresses the importance, however, of enjoying life. “If I don’t make time to read literature, if I don’t make time to watch my sports game, if I don’t make time for living life, then I don’t feel that I can perform music as well or that I’m in as good a position to give directions to the rest of the orchestra. This balance is important; it’s really essential.”
This is just one example of the sort of outreach Izcaray does, but his determination to bring people in and make them into fans of the symphony is evident. Once he has them there, he and the orchestra can go to work making sure they come back.
Two recent concerts in the ASO’s EBSCO Masterworks series offered showcases of the various sorts of things the ensemble can do. On October 9 and 10, the concert was “Joyce Yang Plays Liszt,” a program that sandwiched two pieces with the South Korean pianist as the soloist in between a Beethoven overture and a Brahms symphony. On November 6 and 7, the title of the show was a big headliner: “Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.”
The first of those shows, on October 9, was a tremendous display on the part of the ASO and the piano soloist, Yang. The opening salvo was the thunderous Coriolan Overture, by Ludwig van Beethoven, a very lively piece that oscillates from a stormy minor key opening; to a tranquil middle section in a major key; and back to the intensity and drama of the minor key to finish.
Next, Yang would take her seat at the piano, and even the visuals were striking, as she was wearing a bright red dress that contrasted sharply with the conventional black-and-white backdrop of the orchestra’s clothing. She would proceed to dazzle the audience with a display of pure virtuosity, sometimes expressed in quiet, melodious passages, and sometimes — as in the Liszt piece, entitled Totentanz — coming more like whip cracks as her hands dashed up and down the octaves on the keyboard like a tightrope-walker. Yang received an extended ovation.
Finally, there was Brahms’s Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90, which was done forcefully and authoritatively, with Izcaray really taking up his role with gusto. The symphony started out on the slower side, with the strings and horns playing nicely with one another. The second movement was trance-like, Izcaray sometimes swaying with his eyes almost shut. The third and fourth movements built up to a triumphant finish, with the maestro really asking a lot of his ensemble — and getting it, too.
More recently, the ASO performed Beethoven’s great Ninth Symphony, with two shorter works preceding it. Sean Shepherd’s Blur was the first piece of the night, following the ASO’s established tradition of playing modern works by young composers. Shepherd was born in Reno, Nev., in 1989. Blur is frantic, scurrying, not terribly concerned with harmony so much as unusual innovations in form. The piece could work well enough as a backing soundtrack for an intense chase sequence in a movie, to name just one potential setting for it.
Next was the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater, which Izcaray described to the audience in his pre-show remarks as “liturgical” and which is, indeed, a “meditation on the Virgin Mary weeping at the sight of Jesus on the cross,” according to the program notes. Since Beethoven’s Ninth is a choral symphony — at least in the final movement — three choirs and four soloists were on hand to sing the piece. (The three choirs were the ASO Chorus, the UAB Concert Choir and the University of Montevallo Concert Choir.) The Stabat Mater was beautifully played and sung, sweeping gracefully from dramatic and intense passages to sections of soaring, soothing vocal harmonies.
Finally, there was the Ninth Symphony. Beethoven is very widely considered to be one of the best composers ever to have lived, and no small number of critics and music lovers consider it to be not only one of his best achievements, but one of the most important pieces of music in the Western canon. It contains the ubiquitous “Ode to Joy,” written originally by Friedrich Schiller but immortalized by Beethoven (and now the official anthem of the European Union).
Izcaray asked his orchestra for a lot here: a lot of speed, a lot of volume, a lot of sound in general. They delivered. The piece builds to its big climax starting halfway through the final movement, when the basses and cellos start playing the “Ode to Joy” melody, culminating in a towering wall of sound made up of all the instruments in the orchestra and all the voices in the chorus.
Izcaray seems always to be enjoying himself, even at the end of a concert when he is clearly exhausted, with sweat beading on his brow. After this concert, he looked as if he had been running a marathon, and the crowd was appreciative.
One concertgoer, Nancy Gardner, when asked her impression of Izcaray during the intermission, replied, “I think he’s wonderful. I think that Birmingham is very lucky to have him.” She and her husband, though from Birmingham, have lived in Dallas for 40 years until last October, and she said of Izcaray, “I have to compare him to the conductor in Dallas, who is world-renowned — Jaap van Zweeden — and I think he holds up well, especially to be so young.”
After the last notes had sounded, her husband, Bill Gardner — who did not care to say anything in particular during the intermission — turned and said, without hesitation, “Magnificent — and you can quote me on that.”