Carlos Izcaray was principal cellist of the Venezuelan
Symphony Orchestra when he was approached one day by a member of its board of
directors and invited to conduct a youth symphony orchestra performance.
The son of an eminent Venezuelan conductor had dabbled in
conducting during his college years while studying music in the United States,
so he decided to think about it.
“When is it?” Izcaray asked.
“Tomorrow” came the reply.
“In Venezuela, there’s a lot of winging it,” Izcaray
explained this week in Grand Rapids.
Izcaray got half a rehearsal. The program included Rossini’s
“William Tell” Overture, and it opened with the main theme from John Williams’
“It really felt good. Something was clicking,” he recalled.
“It proved to be very important.”
Carlos Izcaray, recently appointed music director of the Alabama
Symphony Orchestra, is in Grand Rapids this week to guest conduct the Grand
Rapids Symphony for the seventh concert of the 2015-16 Richard and Helen DeVos
He’s one of eight guest conductors in DeVos Performance Hall
this season who are candidates to become the next music director of the Grand
Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 opens the concerts at 8 p.m. Friday
and Saturday, and Debussy’s symphonic sketch “La Mer” or “The Sea” concludes
“Brahms is a German as it gets and Debussy is as French as
it gets,” Izcaray said.
The middle work, “Neruda Songs” by Peter Lieberson, set to
poetry of Pablo Neruda, is a work Izcaray first heard some eight years ago at
the Aspen Music Festival where he was a conducting fellow. Mezzo soprano Katherine Pracht is guest soloist for this weekend's performances in Grand Rapids.
“The piece came as a total surprise. The second I started to
hear it, I said, ‘This is a fantastic piece. I want to do it,’” he recalled. “I
think it’s one of the greatest pieces where love is the central theme in all the
Born into a musical family, Izcaray, age 39, grew up steeped
in music. His father, Felipe, was a conductor and a singer who sang in an
“He’d conduct ‘Nutcracker’year after year,” he said. “I grew
up backstage in the Venezuelan art scene.”
Felipe Izcaray also was an educator in Venezuala’s “El
Sistema” program that offered music lessons and music education to the masses,
helping to launch centers in different parts of the country.
While his father was earning his doctoral degree in music at
the University of Wisconsin, Izcaray spent his first three years in high school
in Madison followed by his senior year of high school at Interlochen Arts
Academy. That’s where he had his very first conducting lessons with Matthew
Hazelwood who taught at Interlochen while also serving as music director of the
Battle Creek Symphony.
“He was a good
friend, and he encouraged me to pursue it,” Izcaray recalled.
Last year Izcaray returned to Interlochen to guest conduct
the World Youth Orchestra.
“It was great to reconnect with a very special place,” he
Despite growing up in a musical household and studying
violin and later cello, Izcaray initially wasn’t interested in making a career
“I wanted to go into
hotel management,” he laughed, while sitting in the elegant Pantlind Hotel lobby in the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.
But Izcaray got the bug in high school and pursued cello,
initially planning for a career in chamber music, later training with the
Vermeer Quartet in Northern Illinois University. While earning his bachelor’s
degree at a small college, the New World School of the Arts in Miami, he began
conducting, becoming a defacto assistant conductor.
“I did not determine early to be a conductor,” he said. “But
I wanted to be able to conduct.”
Eventually, he had to make a choice between continuing his
career as principal cellist with the Venezuela Symphony Orchestra or turning to
“I had covered a lot of ground as a cellist, and I felt I
could work with colleagues and be a leader,” he said.
Izcaray earned top prizes at the Aspen Music Festival
followed by the Toscanini International Conducting Competition in 2008, which
launched him on a career with appearances from Berlin to Bangkok.
From years of orchestra playing, Carlos Izcaray learned that the
best conductors learn how to size up what an orchestra can do.
“What can you rely on? What does the orchestra have in its
DNA that you can trust?” he said. “They were able to give the orchestra a sense
of pride and self-worth.”
Conductors also have to know their own limitations and how
to communicate efficiently.
“Don’t pontificate,” he said. “You have to be able to say it
in a Tweet.”
Izcaray recently moved to Birmingham, Alabama, with his wife
and three kids, ages 5 and 3, recently joined by a newborn just two months old.
The family maintains an apartment in Berlin since his career
first took off in Europe.
“We went where we don’t speak the language,” he said.