By Michael Huebner
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — After a search of more than three years, the Alabama Symphony Orchestra welcomed its new music director, Venezuelan maestro Carlos Izcaray, to the podium Sept. 18 for its signature EBSCO Masterworks series.
Alabama’s only full-time symphony orchestra, which sat silent for three years in the 1990s, hired Izcaray in January. He is the third music director since the orchestra’s 1994 bankruptcy, and only the eighth since its inception in 1921.The 38-year-old conductor impressed a diligent — and patient — search committee of orchestra musicians, patrons, and board members as 35 conductors made guest appearances.
Grounded in Venezuela’s spectacularly successful music education program, El Sistema (as was his compatriot Gustavo Dudamel), Izcaray studied at Interlochen Arts Academy and Indiana University and has racked up impressive credentials on five continents as an orchestra and opera conductor. At a recent pre-season fundraiser, Izcaray gave ASO patrons a glimpse into his Latin roots as he danced and swayed on the podium to a Piazzolla tango, Ginastera variations, Copland’s Latin American Sketches, and a highly charged work by Venezuelan Paul Desenne, who also happens to be ASO’s composer-in-residence.
Although the orchestra’s 2015-16 season isn’t centered on Latin America, it contains enough spice to satisfy those tastes, including two more works by Ginastera (watch for Izcaray’s “Project Ginastera” in 2016) and four more by Desenne. Izcaray will devote much of his time to music from the past few decades, an era for which the ASO has won distinction. The orchestra captured four ASCAP awards for adventurous programming under previous music director Justin Brown. The orchestra’s “Sound Investment” support group has sponsored residencies by Paul Lansky, Avner Dorman, Edgar Meyer, Judd Greenstein, Hannah Lash, Ellis Ludwig-Leone, and now Desenne.
Izcaray brings a compelling backstory to Birmingham, a city steeped in civil rights history. In 2004, he was arrested and beaten by a member of the Venezuelan National Guard while observing an anti-Hugo Chávez demonstration. Injuries to his hand and elbow waylaid his conducting debut with the Venezuela Symphony Orchestra, but sparked a new awareness of the injustices in his native land. Last year, when he was living in Berlin, Izcaray was joined by musicians from around the world, including Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero, for “Concert for the Liberty of Venezuela,” declaring, “We find it our civic duty to publicly protest against the horrible human rights violations being perpetrated by the Venezuelan government.” [A clip from the concert is above.]
Coupling those visceral experiences with superior communication skills and technical precision, the conductor’s first full outing as ASO’s music director balanced post-romantic lyricism with turn-of-the-21st-century modernism. On the modern side was Joan Tower’s highly percussive “Tambor” (Spanish for “drum”), a fitting opener because of the composer’s early upbringing in South America and resulting fondness for percussion instruments. This high-intensity reading, produced through Izcaray’s pinpoint cues and the orchestra’s quick assimilation of tough scores, gave notice of a promising tenure.
Even noisier was John Corigliano’s “The Mannheim Rocket,” a rollicking sci-fi, Munchhausen-caricature excursion through German music history. Quotes from Stamitz and Haydn to Wagner and Stockhausen propelled the rocket on its journey while an ambient din provided the eerie spaceship tracks. The vast array of instruments, from a theremin to a swanee whistle to a lion’s roar, may have taken much longer to set up than the piece’s 10-minute length, but it was well worth the effort.
Elena Urioste, a 29-year-old violinist of Mexican and Basque descent, brought the program back a half century and into the Hollywood realm with Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto. Though her intonation in the high register was at times a bit rough around the edges, this was an engaging performance, sweet and responsive in the first two movements, vibrant and brilliant in the finale. In a recent interview, Izcaray said he hoped to make his relationship with the 54-piece (plus extras) ASO a collective experience. Here he had the orchestra thoroughly engaged with each other and with the soloist.
An even better augury of Izcaray’s future with ASO was Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier Suite. Conducting from memory, the maestro consistently got more from the orchestra than one might have expected. The string sound was silky yet bright, piercing or subdued as required. The winds rarely played a note out of place, and the percussion section was as solid as they come. Although much of the orchestra’s sound was established during Brown’s six-year tenure, it has remained firm despite the lengthy parade of guest conductors during the search.
Izcaray leads with a steady hand, on and off the podium. He is strongly committed to community involvement and music education, increasingly a requirement for music directors, as he settles with his family in his newly adopted home town. Where this new chemistry takes the orchestra remains to be seen. For now, Izcaray is inspiring to watch as his energy and spirit infect orchestra and audience alike.
Michael Huebner writes for artsBHAM.com, a website devoted to arts coverage in Birmingham. Formerly the classical music critic and fine arts reporter for the Birmingham News and AL.com, he has written for the Kansas City Star and Austin American-Statesman.