5 Questions to Carlos Izcaray (conductor, composer)

Carlos Izcaray is a Venezuelan-born conductor, cellist and composer. He is an advocate for new music, conscious programming, and the education of young musicians. Currently, he conducts the Alabama Symphony Orchestra and is starting his fourth season as Music Director of the American Youth Symphony (AYS). His new season with AYS will be centered around the theme “A Celebration of Nature.” The season will include the world premiere of Kris Bowers’ new violin concerto and the U.S premiere of Richard Danielpour’s Ricordanza, which was co-commissioned by AYS and the Russian String Orchestra.  Additionally there will be performances of works by Jennifer Higdon, Joan Tower, and Jihyun Kim, who was the 2019 recipient of the Consortium for Emerging Composers Commission.

How have the tribulations you experienced in Venezuela shaped you to be the artist you are today?

My home country is a place of absolute extremes. On one end, it is blessed with an incredibly biodiverse natural beauty, and its multi-ethnic culture is intense, dynamic, and passionate. On the other hand, crime and corruption are rampant, and living there makes it impossible to avoid the brutal effects of the decadent decline that has plagued the entire nation. The majority of us who are able to find a better life outside the country do so with both physical and emotional scars. I believe all these different memories combined have had some sort of profound effect on my overall personal and artistic sensitivities. After the darker periods, there always seem to be an extra layer of empathy and understanding that wasn’t there before.

Carlos Izcaray--Photo courtesy of AYS

Carlos Izcaray–Photo courtesy of AYS

Could you share with us what sparked your desire to work with young musicians?

Firstly, I am extremely lucky to have been born into a family that cared deeply about the arts and the wonderful impact they could have on society. During my early years, I was immersed in musical activities that were both fun and rewarding, and I cherish the memories, lessons, and lifelong friendships that emerged from that period. Ever since I became a musician, I have been constantly looking for ways to replicate those same positive feelings for the next generation, whether they be amateurs or potential professionals. 

Second, during my formative years, I always gravitated toward mentors who excelled both as performers and educators. I found this to be very noble and inspiring. I can definitely relate to the legendary cellist Janos Starker, who once famously said, “I cannot play without teaching, and I cannot teach without playing.” This means that no matter how busy I am with professional ensembles, I’m always finding places to work and share with the next generation. American Youth Symphony (AYS) gives me the great opportunity to do this on a regular basis with some of the world’s most talented young musicians.

Why is it important to integrate new music into the repertoire of a youth orchestra?

As a general concept with any performing arts ensemble, audiences today are generally very curious, and they also want to see more diversity and representation on stage. This means that there must be an element of new music always present in a season’s program. Tackling these works also helps a modern performer to understand the classics better, such as a Bach cantata, a Mozart opera, or a Beethoven symphony. 

In the case of AYS, many of our musicians will fill the ranks of top professional orchestras, both nationwide and abroad. They will also record for motion pictures, video games, and other studio work. So no matter what path they might chose, or which job they land, the ability to perform new music is an important part of their training.

Carlos Izcaray and members of the American Youth Symphony--Photo by Philip Holahan

Carlos Izcaray and members of the American Youth Symphony–Photo by Philip Holahan

You are a very passionate advocate for the social and environmental issues the world is facing. How can musicians encourage their audience to become more informed and involved with the problems affecting the environment today?

It helps to know that there have been many great musicians from previous eras who were as equally passionate about world affairs as we are today. Beethoven is a great example, daring his audiences with politically charged works such as the Eroica Symphony or Wellington’s Victory, but also inviting them to contemplate the beauty of nature and the simple life of the countryside with his Pastoral Symphony. The more one knows about the underlying motive or historical context of a work, the more one can relate it to a contemporary setting. 

I believe we live in a hyperconnected world that presents a new paradigm to future generations, and musicians will play an important role in it. Talking to and learning from our audiences, as well as maintaining a healthy and constructive dialogue among peers, will help us make the right choices for programs that are both environmentally-conscious and musically-inspiring. 

Is there any piece of advice regarding a career in the arts that you wish you had received while you were still a student?

Learn languages.
Master (or at least get comfortable with) the art of public speaking.
Learn the business side of your art.
Embrace technology.
Study your field outside national boundaries.
Treat your body with the care of an athlete.
Practice a lot, but also include life experiences.