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MS. MAGAZINE: Q&A with Musician, Conductor and AYS “Year of the Women” Champion Carlos Izcaray

This piece was published by Ms. magazine.

On February 23, a new vision for classical music will resound in Los Angeles.

Susan Botti’s EchoTempo, a setting of Native American translations for soprano, percussion and orchestra; Lera Auerbach’s Icarus; and Grammy- and Pulitzer Prize-winner Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra will fill UCLA’s Royce Hall. The trio of works, performed by the equitably gender-split American Youth Symphony’s 2018 cohort as a salute to its 2018/19 theme, “The Year of the Woman,” will set a new tone in the field for advancing gender equality—and provide audiences with the rare opportunity to spend a night surrounded only by the sounds of works composed by women. (Ms. and Feminist Majority Foundation are sponsoring the free event, and will be on-site to participate in a pre-concert conversation about gender gaps in classical music.)

Though the orchestra’s season will eventually come to an end, AYS’ commitment to advancing women’s representation—behind the curtain, backstage and in the conductor’s pit—will not waver come summer. The Year of the Woman, inspired by the mounting global fight for women’s equality in every sector and sphere, is only the beginning of AYS’ enduring commitment to shaping the future of classical music.

Carlos Izcaray is steering that powerful vision for progress. He is no stranger to the AYS mission to foster young talent and set a new tone in the field: Just last year, Izcaray’s Strike Fugaz was premiered by AYS in association with Human Rights Watch to celebrate global fights for justice; throughout his career, he has worked with young musicians in workshops and led tours by youth orchestras.

The AYS Music Director, who is splitting his time between AYS and a parallel role at the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, is also a legendary figure in classical music with a storied career, lending more than a note of gravitas to his efforts to diversify the field. Izcaray leads ensembles across the U.S. and around the world, from the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphonies to the Kwazulu-Natal Philharmonic. He has performed in opera theaters as nearby as Utah and as far as Peru. He served as Principal Cello and Artistic President of the Venezuela Symphony Orchestra and was featured as a concert soloist and chamber musician worldwide. He won top prizes at the 2007 Aspen Music Festival and the 2008 Toscanini International Conducting Competition, took home the Best Opera prize at the Irish Theatre Awards, received rave opera reviews and saw praise pour in after the release of “Through the Lens of Time,” his latest release.

Izcaray talked to Ms. about how AYS plans to continue advancing women’s representation, what comes after the Year of the Woman and just what we can expect to experience this weekend.

I always start with an inception story. Tell me how the 2018/2019 AYS season became known as the “Year of the Woman.”

As I was envisioning the season as a whole, I wanted to make a statement regarding women composers. The initial idea was to do a program where all featured composers were women, something that I hadn’t done before. As soon as I started the process though, it quickly became evident that doing just one program wouldn’t be enough. There are just too many great works by an incredible diverse pool of women composers to chose from, and sticking to a single event didn’t have the impact I desired. So the main goal quickly evolved into something much more powerful and meaningful, where AYS would perform a whole season where the majority of living composers were women. Add to that the involvement of several female guest artists and, voila!, the Year of the Woman season was born. This felt like a real statement that we could all stand by, and an example to follow in the future.

You’ve also made your own firm commitment to gender equality in time with this powerful public devotion to the issues women face in getting to the stage. Can you also tell me a little bit about your pledge to produce gender-equitable shows?

One of the challenges with classical music is that our past doesn’t collaborate with the gender gap. In other words, women of previous eras sadly didn’t get the opportunities to shine in the field, or even to start in the musical path, hence we have very little repertoire to choose from. But our era is quite different.

A brief glance at databases like composerdiversity.com shows that the resources are there for us to level the field. So we, as a field, can really make it proportionally fair if we desire, and it’s something we at AYS will continue to do so from here on. Our goal is that 50 percent of all living composers through each of our programming cycles, which last 2-3 years, will be women. From a performing angle, it is also key to give equal opportunity to guest artists, and make sure that there are no gender gaps.

I just want to mention some statistics here about gender in classical music: A 2018 study by Quartz at Work found that, of 2,438 full-time musicians from the world’s 20 greatest orchestras, 69 percent were men. A Post analysis the same year found that women made up nearly 40 percent of the country’s orchestras members—but then held only 21 percent of the principal, or titled, slots. Last year, women occupied just 12 of 73 principal positions in the “big five” orchestras in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia and New York. Of the 1,445 classical concerts performed across the world from 2018 to 2019, only 76 included at least one piece by a woman.

Beyond feminist programming and individual commitments, how do we close these gaps? What will it take for women to achieve parity in classical music, and how can leaders in the field follow your lead and play their own part in making it happen?

I believe the best way to deal with the gender gap is to tackle it head on at every single front. First comes the exposure and instruction for our youth, where every child, no matter that gender they may be, feels that there is equal access and fairness during the first steps of the musical path. Second, there must be equal opportunity for those musicians who strive for advancement in an extremely competitive field. Blind orchestral auditions, where the jury panel is positioned behind a screen and can’t view who is playing, are a great example. Since the practice started a few decades ago, the gender gap has been drastically reduced, and I’m very glad that we at AYS have adopted this practice since the beginning of my tenure. The last part of the equation is the leadership. Whether we’re talking about composers, featured artists, administrators, members of boards of directors, or conductors, it is important to provide an even field and opportunities so that women can also display their talents at the helm of the industry.

What impact do you hope the “Year of the Woman” has, locally and on a larger scale—and how will it shape what’s yet to come from AYS?

With regards to AYS, I hope that our young musicians will see this as a model to follow as they advance in their careers. I foresee that a good number of them will be involved in making artistic or executive decisions in the future, so hopefully they can consider this methodology when it comes to programming and hiring. I also want our audience to feel enriched by being exposed to this diverse roster of composers and performers. On a larger scale, I would encourage other artistic leaders and administrators to apply similar concepts with their respective organizations. This initiative is truly universal in spirit, so it can and should be applied worldwide.

I’m already so looking forward to the “Year of the Woman” celebration concert later this month, produced in partnership with Ms. and the Feminist Majority Foundation. What can those of us in attendance expect that night? 

You can expect to be moved by three amazing composers. Lera Auerbach’s Icarus is driven and fiery, and it provides an energized spark for the concert to take flight. Susan Botti’s Echo Tempo, based on Native American poetry, provides a music tapestry that is truly enchanting. We are also extremely fortunate to have Susan as our voice soloist, and Ted Adkatz will join her with the incredibly complex percussion part. Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra, our closing work, is a journey of epic proportions that features and challenges all the sections of the orchestra. Each composer provides a completely different sound world, with a wide spectrum of emotions to discover.

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