Berlin to Birmingham isn’t a move many people make, but Venezuela-born Carlos Izcaray and his wife, Yolanda Serafimov, jumped right in, and after three years, Carlos says they’re settling right in to the Edgewood community of Homewood. “It’s very different. It’s a tight community,” he says, in a soft, hypnotizing accent that sounds like words rolling of his tongue like water. “It’s gone very nicely,” he says. “We don’t feel like newbies anymore.”
In Berlin, he worked as a freelancer conducting all over Europe, wherever the opportunity rose. Then, he was invited to guest conduct the Alabama Symphony Orchestra at just the right time: when the symphony was looking for a new music director, and Carlos and Yolanda were looking to settle down a bit more. They had two daughters at the time, each born in a different country. “It worked kind of nicely, professionally and personally.” Their third child, a boy, was born here, “in Homewood!” he exclaims.
And now he’s in his fourth season here, and Alabama is not just his home but his musical family now too. “We’ve gone through a lot here,” he says. And he isn’t kidding. In January of 2017, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Through surgeries and chemotherapy, he kept working, and at the end of it all, just as he was finishing his treatment, Yolanda was diagnosed with breast cancer. He considers themselves lucky to have been here, in such a respectable medical community.
“She’s on a trial drug here,” he says. “There’s only a handful of places that offer the type of treatments that she has now, and it’s yielded very good results.” She’s still being treated, and to add to it, Carlos’ father has been diagnosed with prostate cancer, and his mom was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. “We went from nothing to everything at once,” he says. During his own treatments, he says it was music that sustained him. “During the process I was never happier than when I was making music.”
THE MAESTRO AT HOME
You might think the Izcaray house is always filled with music. But you’d be wrong. Oh, there are days he comes home to find his wife blasting Bon Jovi and playing along on violin, but Carlos says at home there are also times he needs quiet space to decompress. “It’s a noisy place, here,” he says, pointing to his head, where he says there’s always a soundtrack playing. And his personal music tastes (from Renaissance music to the last hit by Zed) are too varied to pin down in one article.
He started learning the violin when he was 3, and yes, both his daughters play: one, the violin, the other, the cello. He says Sebastian, who turned 3 in November, will start soon. The son of a conductor (his father) and an arts administrator (his mother), Carlos says he was never forced to play or practice. In fact, although he switched to cello around 9 or 10, it wasn’t until he was in his late teens that he knew music would be his life. He went to high school and college in the U.S., and after a few years of a professional cellist, he felt the pull of conducting. “There’s too much that I like. That’s why I feel I have to conduct,” he says chuckling. “In a way it’s because there’s so much that I don’t think I could listen to it passively. After a while you want to get your hands dirty.”
GETTING HIS HANDS DIRTY
For starters, there’s more to conducting than just waving the little stick around. Of course, that’s important, too. The baton keeps all the musicians together, not an easy task when you’re talking about getting 53 people to play as one. The ASO plays a 40-week season, and the music is so varied that the musicians usually only have their first rehearsals around a week before the performance. “With this orchestra and most full-time orchestras, it’s, (Carlos snaps his fingers together three times), it’s like the NFL. You know, you get your game and then the next game plan for the next team is different, so it’s back to practice.” He says they only practice together three or four sessions, a couple hours each. “So it’s a very fast process. It’s fast.”
You may see Carlos moving his baton, but what you don’t see is all the work that goes into choosing the music the musicians will play each night. Carlos composes himself, and he also commissions new works by other musicians.
“I try to find ways to break the mold that defines what people feel the genres are.” In November, Carlos says they’ll be doing a concert with the electrical guitarist Steve Vai, whom Carlos calls the “Paganini of electric guitar” and Guitar World magazine voted the 10th greatest guitarist.
“And that’s going to be something nobody knows what’s that going to be like because he’s working from his end to be more out of his realm, and we’re working from our end to be more out of our realm. And whatever people listen to, it’s going to be a whole different thing.”
But also this year, some of the most recognizable composers’ works are being performed, including, for the first time, all of Beethoven’s nine symphonies. “Without a doubt that’s gonna be a nice marathon,” he told us before the season started. And while Beethoven’s symphonies might be a good starting point for new classical music lovers, he says it’s also an opportunity for veteran concertgoers to participate in the conversation. “We do pre-concert talks. My concerts are very interactive. I like to stress a few points here and there, things to listen for, some historical background.” He likes to place the music into historical context. He says it’s like going to a museum and choosing to use the headphones or a curator to explain points a casual observer wouldn’t catch.
“With Beethoven, the reason I’m really looking forward to it is because he had such an epic life himself. Through the symphonies, we can explore different facets of life, like political stuff, like revolution, Napoleon, all the things that were political turmoil of the time. Dealing with his deafness, being deaf, his spiritual side. All these things that if you do just one or two you can only focus on a few aspects, whereas here we can do the totality and see, and people, I think, will appreciate even more why he is such an important figure in history. Not just music.”
When Carlos isn’t leading his Birmingham musicians through a marathon or also serving as the music director for the American Youth Symphony of Los Angeles, he enjoys many of the same things about Homewood as everyone else. “I just love the family atmosphere,” he says. “Homewood is so convenient,” he adds. “Even the airport. I arrived last night (from L.A.) and 12 minutes later I was at home.”
“We love the dining scene. I’ve gained too many pounds,” he says. “The culinary scene is fantastic.”
He also feels the contagious energy of the revitalization of downtown Birmingham and Avondale, which makes him feel like he’s a part of something still growing. Not an ancient city with its story behind it. More like a rich symphony, still being written.