Rafael Payare Musical Director and Conductor of the SAN DIEGO AND MONTREAL SYMPHONICAL ORCHESTRA
San Diego Symphony Orchestra Music Director and Conductor Rafael Payare began playing the notoriously difficult French horn when he was 13 years old. During an hour-long Zoom interview while he was in Montreal, I asked how he managed to become a soloist in less than six months. later! “I have to admit it was a little fast,” he said. Not the haughty, selfish response I might have gotten from stereotypical conductors. His local youth orchestra, part of Venezuela’s extensive El Sistema program, needed horns, so he joined a few weeks after first picking one up. “For a few lessons I could only play one scale, but then something clicked, and I started playing more.” Less than six months later, he successfully auditioned for the National Youth Orchestra and later became Principal Horn of the prestigious Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, the one who brought Gustave Dudamel to the attention of the management world.
The founder of El Systema, José Antonio Abreu, was the first executive coach of Dudamel and Payare and had a huge influence on their lives and their beliefs. Abreu showed them that music is a force for social change. While I already knew they believed that, I didn’t realize that was a major reason Payare was offered and accepted his job in San Diego. “When I spoke with (CEO) Martha Gilmer I was excited because her fantastic ambition matched what I wanted
To do. Wherever I go, I try to elevate the orchestra to a higher artistic level and bring live music to as many people as possible. I’m wired that way.”
A relatively late start, Payare was 31 when he won first prize in the highly respected Malko competition for young conductors. He said he hadn’t thought about winning, only hoping to pass the first round because it meant the Competition would cover his expenses in Copenhagen. But he won and became conductor of the Ulster Symphony in Belfast two years later. There, he quickly showed that he had taken Abreu’s belief in social change through music to heart, holding rehearsals near a street separating Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods. “We would have open rehearsals so people from either community could come for the enjoyment of listening to music without worrying too much about religious differences.”
He has similar thoughts for San Diego. “We want to explore the possibility of having something like El Sistema. I know the city has many youth orchestras. The same goes for the neighboring city of Tijuana.” It is
thinking about starting projects with individual schools here and across the border to form what El Sistema calls a “core” of concerts that would bring together students from both countries. “So we could have an orchestra that would give that sense of community.” Even before the Rady Shell
open, Payare envisaged student concerts there, sometimes in collaboration with symphonic musicians. “Why not have a 500-person orchestra playing in the Shell, you know, why not? We have to think big. Some of these students could become musicians if we gave them that experience.” It would show them that it was a real possibility, which Payare himself realized when he had similar experiences in his youth that led to a life he loves.
“The beauty of conducting is that you never stop learning. You want to be true to the score, but there’s so much more behind it. I try to understand why a composer wrote a piece and what they wanted to express. The more you have the better information. It doesn’t mean you have to put everything into a performance. If you overthink it, you’re going to end up with something too heavy He likens it to deciding which ingredients you want to use and how many of each when cooking.(Culinary comparisons come easily to him. He loves the different foods his travels introduce him to.)
Even fundamentals like tempo and dynamics can be hard to decide. How fast is fast, how strong is. Mahler scores help more than most. “The Fifth Symphony has a 25-page introduction for the conductor. He writes notes like, ‘These episodes, you have to do them a little faster, don’t let the orchestra go slower; don’t push it here; be sure to repeat these episodes, this passage in the woodwind section is not easy to play. And because room sizes and instruments have changed over time, a composer may have written for a smaller space or louder or softer instruments. the right flavor.”
Ulster’s offer of their conductorship surprised him. He thought it was a joke when they asked him if he wanted work over dinner the day he was there as a guest chef. Two days later, he received a formal offer. For five years he also conducted many of the world’s most admired orchestras, including the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the London, Boston and Chicago symphonies. He remains Ulster Conductor Laureate, but has signed up for seven seasons in San Diego and more recently five across the continent in Montreal. “With two orchestras, I have to reduce guest appearances.” Increasing recognition as a talented conductor and programming is an even bigger issue due to the length of opera rehearsals.
“It’s a bit complicated, but I try to have at least one title per season. I was in Copenhagen rehearsing Tosca the whole month of March. We premiered on April 2 and then I came back from this side of the pond for a concert with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra before returning to Copenhagen for three more performances of Tosca.”
Fortunately, its multiple orchestral responsibilities offer significant advantages. “Each orchestra is like a living organism with its own repertoire, tradition, sound and relationship to the community. It’s wonderful to have incredible orchestras in two border towns with different environments, languages and histories. ” Even if they do the same song, it won’t sound quite the same. The vibratos and even the intonation are different. Montreal uses a standard A of 442, while the US is at 440. Many believe the higher tuning results in a “brighter” sound. Perhaps related, “Montreal has an amazing transparency in the woodwinds that works well in the French and Russian repertoire.”
The Canadian orchestra has a longer history of well-known conductors and a much larger catalog of recordings. Payare thinks San Diego’s excellence is underrated, but the number of young musicians vying for vacancies indicates that’s changing. “We auditioned around ’98 for our last violin opening.”
Plans to show how far the orchestra has come include “crazy beautiful projects, sometimes teaming up with Montreal. Each orchestra can learn from how the other enters the community, and our first joint commission is a work by Austrian composer Thomas Larcher.
Payare’s enthusiasm for San Diego is due in part to the new Rady Shell on the waterfront and the substantial upgrades underway at Jacobs Music Center’s Symphony Hall. Both will deliver state-of-the-art sound. Changes in the room will eliminate huge acoustic differences that depend on where you sit. Equally important, improving the listening skills of musicians on stage will make it easier for conductors to achieve the sound they are looking for. Payare raves about the difference Rady’s Meyer audio system has made for musicians and audiences.
“I mean, Gustavo (Dudamel) came to the Shell opening and absolutely loved it. He was like, wow!” This is a common opinion, although generally less expert.
The recordings will also play a part in the Symphony’s plans for greater visibility. The first is on Platoon with Payare conducting a live performance of Shostakovich’s 7th symphony, the “Leningrad”, written to honor the estimated million Russians who died when the Nazis besieged the city for 872 days. I wasn’t quite sure what that meant when early in his career he said he hoped to suffer and rejoice in an ever-expanding repertoire. I realize now that he meant he was living what the music has to say. During rehearsals before the performance of the symphony, “We were discussing the structure and graphic character of the piece. We could hear the woodwinds and smell the blood. The whole orchestra was like in a trance.” They lived the music so intensely that they had to postpone a second rehearsal to the next day. In concert, “It was a massive sound, really loud. After the chime at the end, the audience was silent for a long time and then rose to an explosion of applause. It was wonderful. This symphony is the kind of thing you suffer but enjoy it.”
While Payare’s career flourished, that of his cellist wife Alisa Weilerstein. They married in 2013. Their eldest of two daughters is six years old and the youngest is just three months old. The couple are still working out how to handle parenthood with already daunting travels, and now, Payare’s new job in Montreal. “They’re still at a mobile age, but it’s going to get a bit more complicated with school and things like that. We’re going to have to find the right balance.”
Although Payare says music has guided everything he’s done in life, the far-from-stern bandleader retains a youthful love for baseball, and the San Diego Padres are on his watch list. . “I’m very excited. I really love baseball and I couldn’t keep up with Venezuelan baseball while living in Europe due to jet lag. So going to a Padres game last season brought me back to the fandom The stadium is beautiful, a wonderful place to be in. I love it.
There’s room for baseball, but he’d love to perform the complete Bruckner symphonies, Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Mozart’s 41 symphonies and more. For “pain and pleasure,” even a grand slam can’t compete with a performance that puts an audience on their feet with a combination of cheers and tears.
Photos courtesy of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra