With Triple Threat At Helm, Southern Orchestra Thrives

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Music director Carlos Izcaray conducts the Alabama Symphony Orchestra at the Alys Stephens Center in Birmingham.
(Photo courtesy Alabama Symphony Orchestra)
By Michael Huebner

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Now in his third full season at the helm of the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, Carlos Izcaray is making a big impact on this Southern city’s arts. Since his position-clinching debut in 2015 after a grueling search, he has bonded with the musicians of this nearly century-old institution. Increasingly incisive technique, finely sculpted dynamics, and bold interpretations, all of which were in evidence at a Masterworks concert on Friday, Feb. 23, have become the norm. Izcaray, who also regularly plays cello on the orchestra’s chamber music series, introduced a third talent to local audiences with the premiere of his newest composition.

Maestro Izcaray looks over the score of his ‘Yellowhammer.’ (Michael Huebner)

Yellowhammer, an eleven-minute work named for Alabama’s state bird, is a positive sign of Izcaray’s commitment to what is commonly known as the Yellowhammer State. The premiere also reflects the 40-year-old conductor’s championing of new music, a pursuit this orchestra established during the six-year tenure of his predecessor, Justin Brown.

Scored for large orchestra, the work opens with shimmers, silences, and sound clusters in the strings, harp, and piano before widening to heavy brass and percussion in Latin-inspired rhythms. Birmingham’s industrial history is fully evident in the dense orchestration of the work’s midsection.

The yellowhammer is actually a Northern flicker or woodpecker, with yellow coloration on the underside of the wings. Another, more songful,  yellowhammer is common in Europe. Izcaray summoned both. The pecking of the American bird is heard in the wood blocks, the song of the European bird in the flute. Olivier Messiaen conjured that species of yellowhammer in his organ work, Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité,  and Beethoven, some scholars have argued, in the opening of the Fifth Symphony.

“‘Yellowhammer’ is not meant to be a grand statement,” Izcaray said.

Yellowhammer is not meant to be a grand statement,” Izcaray said in a recent interview. “It’s a concert opener. A part in the middle is the most strident and dissonant, where it’s meant to sound more industrial – a reference to Vulcan [the iconic Birmingham statue], the steel mills, and the heat.”

Despite being occasionally overwhelmed with volume, Yellowhammer allows plenty of breathing room. A gifted colorist, Izcaray was driven by his intimacy with the orchestra at hand, which has developed an acute facility for reading new scores.

“Thinking about our orchestra, I know who’s playing and how the piece functions within the larger context of Dvořák and Beethoven,” he added.

A strong advocate for music education both in Birmingham and beyond,  Izcaray took an additional position as music director of the Los Angeles-based American Youth Symphony in 2016, and has twice conducted the World Youth Symphony Orchestra at the Interlochen (Mich.) Arts Academy, of which Izcaray is an alumnus. His career has also led to guest appearances with orchestras throughout North America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America, and opera in Berlin, St. Louis, Peru, and Ireland.

Izcaray: strong advocate for music education. (Alabama Symphony)

The Venezuela-born musician has also experienced more than his share of hardships. On the way to his conducting debut with the Venezuela Symphony Orchestra in 2004, he was arrested and thrown into a National Guard truck after innocently observing an anti-Hugo Chávez rally. He suffered injuries to his hand and elbow while being threatened with tear gas and a gun.

Last year, he was treated for classical Hodgkin’s lymphoma, yet he continued to meet most of his conducting obligations, suffering from scars and pain during his recovery. In the midst of those challenges, ASO has undergone an administrative overhaul that includes a new executive director and artistic administrator as well as changes in development, marketing, and communications staff.

Still in place is the orchestra’s Sound Investment program, which has hosted composers-in-residence for premieres and commissions for nine seasons. First among them were Paul Lansky and Avner Dorman, whose ASO commissions were performed by the orchestra at the Spring for Music festival in Carnegie Hall in 2012. Residencies by Edgar Meyer, Judd Greenstein, Hannah Lash, Bryce Dessner, Paul Desenne, and Susan Botti followed. For their commitment to new works, the orchestra received four ASCAP awards for adventurous programming.

Although new music offerings have decreased this season and next for its signature Masterworks series, Sound Investment is moving forward, thanks to this year’s composer, Izcaray himself, and the Yellowhammer commission.

Beethoven soloist Noah Bendix-Balgley (Nikolaj Lund)

Another top priority during Brown’s six-year tenure at ASO was to hone the orchestra’s Beethoven chops. Brown did so by programming the five piano concertos and three cycles of the nine symphonies; that focus was evident at this concert on Feb. 23 with the Violin Concerto.

The soloist, 34-year-old violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley, is a North Carolina native who has risen to first concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic. He displayed considerable technical gifts, together with effortless execution. The cadenzas, all composed by the violinist, are playful dialogues, closely aligned with Beethoven’s tunes. While mimicking and enhancing the double and triple stops in the score, they are not meant for mere virtuosic show but to defer to the composer’s themes.

A dainty high solo in the Larghetto, accompanied by pizzicato strings, was especially sublime. In the finale, Izcaray swept the strings to a bright edge while retaining a remarkably even balance with Bendix-Balgley. An encore, the Gavotte en rondeau from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3, again revealed the violinist’s free-flowing ease and impeccable legato.

The apprehension of hearing Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony for at least the hundredth time was dispelled almost immediately. Izcaray’s intent was not to overwhelm the 1,300-seat Jemison Concert Hall but to allow Dvořák, not Izcaray or the orchestra, to be clearly heard. The built-in urgency of the opening movement, meaningful pauses of the Largo, immaculate off-the-beat syncopations in the third movement, and biting edge of the strings in the finale replaced any fear of another mundane or overwrought reading with pure satisfaction.

Formerly the classical music critic and fine arts reporter for the Birmingham News and AL.com, Michael Huebner now writes for artsBHAM.com, a website devoted to arts coverage in Birmingham. Before coming to Alabama, he wrote freelance for the Kansas City Star and Austin American-Statesman.