Carlos Izcaray, Venezuelan-born, Interlochen-trained, debuts with Grand Rapids Symphony

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’ “Star Wars.” “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 Classical Series. 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 Rapids Symphony

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 each program. 

“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 orchestral repertoire.” 

Grand Rapids Symphony 2015-16 Music Director Candidates

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 acapella quintet. 

“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 said. 

Despite growing up in a musical household and studying violin and later cello, Izcaray initially wasn’t interested in making a career in music.  

“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 conducting. 

“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.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 8:30 AM

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