When I ask Rafael Payare which composers he’s feeling particularly drawn to these days, he answers without skipping a beat.
“I really love Mahler, Brahms, Beethoven, Schuman, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Ravel, Debussy, Wagner, Sibelius, Mozart, of course,” the Venezuelan conductor says before stopping to catch his breath and evaluate his answer.
“I don’t know. I feel drawn to many, many. It’s too hard to choose. Like trying to say, ‘What food do you want to eat for the rest of your life?’ There are so many foods out there! You can’t pick just one.”
Payare, who turned 40 in February, joined the San Diego Symphony as music director at the start of the 2019–20 season. His new boss, CEO Martha Gilmer, uses similar words to describe his tastes.
“He has a carnivorous musical appetite,” she says. “I use that word because Rafael loves a good steak. And that’s kind of how he is. He’s got this voracious appetite for making music.”
Payare’s appointment is a coup for the organization, which had been without a music director since Jahja Ling’s retirement in 2017 after 13 years. When Ling left, the orchestra, which was still dealing with the scars of a late-1990s bankruptcy, took its time choosing its next director, evaluating 21 conductors during the interim.
“It was a great opportunity for [our musicians] to work with incredibly experienced professionals and new, rising stars,” Gilmer says. “It was a wide range and an exciting time.”
Like most orchestras searching for a new director, San Diego relied on a committee of board members, staff, and musicians to do what Gilmer calls “the very quiet and confidential work of assessing and identifying talent.” They invited guest conductors to lead weekend concerts; symphony musicians provided feedback.
When Payare visited in January 2018, Gilmer says, the chemistry was electric and immediate. With him, she says, “it was obvious to everybody from the start that this is the right person for this orchestra at this moment in history.”
THE EL SISTEMA EFFECT
With his passionate, generous approach to music making, thick Venezuelan accent, and signature head of wildly bouncy, dark curly hair, it’s hard not to compare Payare to L.A. Philharmonic superstar music and artistic director Gustavo Dudamel.
Payare and Dudamel are products of Venezuela’s famous El Sistema music education program. The publicly funded program is renowned for using music education to effect social change. It was founded in 1975 by José Antonio Abreu, an important mentor to both conductors. (Abreu died in March 2018.)
The two conductors became friends when they were musicians in their country’s esteemed Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, which is overseen by El Sistema. As a young violinist, Dudamel was that orchestra’s concertmaster, and Payare was a principal in the horn section.
One night, when they were about 15 or 16, Dudamel and his roommates were horsing around and broke one of their bunk beds. “They had no idea what to do and were worried they would get expelled for being naughty,” says Payare, who was staying in the adjacent room and volunteered to help. Using materials from the window blinds, he jerry-rigged the upper bunk so that the damage wasn’t visible.
“You couldn’t pull the blinds down, but you also couldn’t see the problem with the bed,” Payare says with a laugh. “And so that is actually how we bonded. And from that time on, they all called me MacGyver, after the U.S. television show character.”
While national and internal politics have at times threatened to tarnish El Sistema’s reputation—its supporters have included corrupt leaders like Hugo Chávez, and there have been reports of an unhealthy, authoritarian culture within—it has also been lauded, imitated, and replicated around the world.
The program’s results speak for themselves. Over the years, El Sistema has produced an impressive number of internationally acclaimed conductors. In addition to Dudamel and Payare, successful alumni include Christian Vásquez, who was the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra chief conductor from 2013 to 2019, and Domingo Hindoyan, currently the principal guest conductor of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra.
Payare and Dudamel’s common background is apparent when you see them in action. On the podium, both exude palpable, supercharged energy that inspires musicians and audiences alike. Both also have a tendency to eschew a score and to conduct from memory, a habit Payare says is a gift from their mentor: “Abreu used to tell us that you have to have the score in your head, not your head in the score.”
While comparisons between Payare and Dudamel are inevitable, Gilmer explains that their similarities are not what matters. “The fact is that [Payare and Dudamel] came from a certain school, a certain way of learning, a certain place in history,” the CEO says. “I think that the El Sistema school of learning involves developing a passionate commitment to fidelity to the music and also engaging in broader communities in a deep way. That is something that is of value here in San Diego.”
Gilmer, who came to San Diego in 2014 following a 35-year stint at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, says the qualities she admires in Abreu’s protégés are similar to those she saw reflected in other great schools of conductors who transformed American orchestras during the 20th century.
“For instance, if you go back a generation, you can look at the number of conductors that emigrated from Eastern Europe, Hungary in particular,” she says. “There was George Szell, Georg Solti, Fritz Reiner. Rafael is similar to those greats in that fidelity to the music is at the center of his approach. Like them, he is a deep and thoughtful musician who wakes up every morning and orients his day around music.”
As for Dudamel, the Los Angeles conductor says he could not be more thrilled to have Payare join the ranks of California music directors. “You cannot imagine how happy I am to see Rafael thriving in San Diego,” Dudamel wrote via email. “We share so much in common—our love of Venezuela, a similar educational history, common friendships, musical tastes, and a passionate social commitment to the next generation. I know that he and his wife are also enjoying, as my wife and I, living the California Dream.”
TO THE PODIUM
Without El Sistema, it is unlikely Payare would be a musician at all, let alone an internationally recognized conductor.
When he was growing up in Barcelona, Venezuela, he says, his parents were not especially musical and he didn’t have access to a classical music radio station. But he remembers overhearing his brother—who for a while participated in a local El Sistema chapter himself—playing a recording of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Payare was mesmerized by the sounds he heard coming from his brother’s speakers: lush, romantic melodies and, in particular, bold, brassy fanfares. His brother took him to El Sistema, where he met a teacher with a background in brass. “In that way, the French horn kind of chose me,” he says.
Payare had a relatively late start in music, picking up the horn when he was almost 14 years old. But he was a quick and avid student, and soon he was off to Caracas, Venezuela, where he joined the Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra. Payare traveled the world, playing in the storied concert halls of Europe and working with esteemed maestros.
He recalls one life-changing rehearsal around the year 2000 with Italian conductor Giuseppe Sinopoli. The orchestra was preparing to perform Wagner’s Rienzi Overture. “We were maybe 160 kids, and usually to have any kind of changes in tempo or anything was, let’s say, some work,” Payare says. But Sinopoli, who spoke no Spanish, was able to transform the orchestra’s sound within a matter of seconds, “just with his aura and energy.”
Payare was transfixed. “At that moment, I thought to myself, ‘First, I need to be at the top level in my instrument, and then when I am old and all my hair goes white, then I can go into conducting.’ ”
He wouldn’t have to wait that long. With Dudamel and Abreu’s encouragement, he started conducting brass ensembles and youth orchestras and jumping in during rehearsals when Dudamel—who by then was the conductor of the Simón Bolivar—got delayed by one of Caracas’s notoriously bad traffic jams.
Something clicked inside Payare when he was on the podium in front of an orchestra. Abreu saw it first. “He was a visionary who saw my future before I did,” Payare says of his mentor. “It was like the moment that he opened that door, I thought, ‘Well, yes, this makes sense. This is the [right piece] of the puzzle for me.’ ”
In 2012, Payare was preparing to go on a European tour with the Simón Bolivar when he won the Malko Competition for young conductors in Denmark. That summer’s tour, which included the orchestra’s Concertgebouw debut in Amsterdam, would be his last with the group he’d played with for his entire musical life thus far. But almost instantly, he was in high demand across Europe as a conductor, and soon he left the horn behind for his new career.
Payare’s Malko Competition win had put him on Gilmer’s radar. She saw him conduct in Los Angeles when he was working there as a Dudamel Fellow and followed his career as it blossomed in Europe. In 2014, when Ling announced that he would be leaving his post, she immediately tried to book Payare for a weekend concert. But he was in such high demand, he didn’t have any openings until January 2018.
In addition to his own busy schedule, Payare has to work around what he jokingly refers to as his “marriage schedule.” His wife, American cellist Alisa Weilerstein, is herself in demand as a soloist around the world. The couple met 10 years ago during a rehearsal for Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, and their connection was instantaneous. They married in 2013 and are busy raising their three-year-old daughter, Ariadna. As a family, they have a commitment never to be apart for more than two weeks, a logistical challenge they make work with careful planning.
In a video accompanying their wedding announcement, Alisa, or Ali, as Payare calls her, talks about her husband-to-be as both a musician and a human. “Rafael is an amazing musician, which is probably the most important ingredient in a conductor,” she says. “There’s a kind of command that he has when he takes the stage. And honesty. There’s a poem that I’m quoting, and it’s ‘without problems or pride,’ it is just the music.”
Gilmer says Payare’s genuine, honest engagement with people and music is a big part of why she hired him. The musicians of the San Diego Symphony saw the same thing, she says. And for them, it helped that rehearsals with Payare went by quickly, efficiently, and with plenty of joy, enthusiasm, and inspiration.
When Payare first met the musicians of the San Diego Symphony, he too felt a spark and recognized their potential. He saw his own passions reflected in them: to keep growing, keep learning, and chase excellence in a way that can be shared with the whole community.
“Since the very beginning of that first rehearsal in January of 2019, it was like we knew each other for a long time,” he says of the orchestra. “There was a kind of magic in that moment. It was just immediate trust that together we could go and push any kind of boundary, break down any kind of wall. We were immediately on the same page.… Like a glove to a hand, it just fit. Because they have this hunger to go further and further, which is beautiful.”
Catherine Womack wrote about L.A. civil rights leader Floyd C. Covington for Alta, Winter 2020.