Rafael Payare: Conducting should always feel like your last breath

Rafael Payare

Rafael Payare is grateful to the traffic chaos in Caracas. As a member of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, he would often get last-minute phone calls from jammed conductors telling him to start the rehearsal for them. The experience was invaluable and at the age of 37 he is now one of the leading conductors of his generation – he has just been announced as the new Music Director of the San Diego Symphony. He joins the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on 27th March with a programme of Mozart and Strauss, which will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3.

Giving musicians such responsibility at a young age is one of the great strengths of El Sistema, Venezuela’s ground-breaking music-education social phenomenon. Bringing together children of every background, it offers intense music education from a young age, with students teaching each other and taking part in group music almost immediately. So within barely three weeks of hearing his brother play in an ensemble for the first time and deciding to learn the French horn, the 13-year-old Payare was playing in the second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with the youth orchestra at home in Puerto de la Cruz. He remembers, ‘It was fast, but fantastic. I could only play one scale, but I could read the music because you only have to know seven notes and then you can work everything else out.’

‘It’s a constant evolution. You never stop learning – that is one of the beautiful things about our art’

Eventually learning all the other notes, he went on to play Principal Horn, which taught him useful life lessons: ‘The horn is an ungrateful instrument. One moment you feel you’re at the top of your game and there are no problems, then all of a sudden you crack a note, without seeing it coming. Every time you play, you know that if you miss something, everyone will hear it. That gives you nerves of steel, and also self-confidence. If you have been able to do it well you can feel at ease. That works with many things in life.’

Rafael Payare Conducts Strauss

The El Sistema philosophy also gave him an important perspective on both life and music, he explains: ‘One of the main things with the system is that whenever you make music, you have to make it with total commitment and honesty, as if it’s the last breath that you will ever take. That’s their approach for everything – whether it’s theory classes, playing in orchestra, getting better at your instrument or playing chamber music.’

As part of the training, Payare and his colleagues would often conduct groups in schools they visited (and whenever the traffic was bad). He had thought about becoming a conductor one day, but his passion was properly ignited when Giuseppe Sinopoli came to town, he recalls: ‘Sinopoli didn’t even speak Spanish, but with just his presence he changed the colour and sound of the orchestra within seconds. It was amazing and inspiring. That planted the seed of the love of conducting in my mind.’

By the age of 24, Payare was obsessed. He came under the wing of José Antonio Abreu, founder of El Sistema, who gave him conducting lessons and sent him for intense study, including five-hour one-to-one theory lessons: ‘Everything happened very fast. It was like opening a door I had no idea was there. My mind would work on repertoire that I hadn’t even played. At night I would have a piece in my head, and the next day I would go to the library to find the score and I would see all the things that I was already hearing. Somehow I had been studying without knowing it. It sounds crazy, but it just was like that.’

‘Whenever you make music, you have to make it with total commitment and honesty, as if it’s the last breath that you will ever take’

He went on to win the Nicolai Malko Competition for Young Conductors in 2012, and currently serves as Music Director of the Ulster Orchestra and Principal Conductor of the Castleton Festival. He also travels extensively and enjoys working with orchestras around the world: ‘It’s different every time because an orchestra is made of human beings and everyone reacts in a different way,’ he says. ‘You have to adapt all the time. You hear something you’re not expecting, or a beautiful line comes along and you change your way and ride with it. It’s a constant evolution. You never stop learning – that is one of the beautiful things about our art.’

Payare is excited about performing Strauss’s Don Juan and Don Quixote (with cellist Alban Gerhardt) and Mozart’s ‘Haffner’ Symphony with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He explains: ‘It’s a fantastic programme, and a perfect way to showcase the orchestra, which is full of such wonderful artists. They have all the virtuosity that’s needed for Don Juan and a beautiful blend of sound. They can make such vivid pictures, especially in Don Quixote, but also find the right sound for Mozart’s ‘Haffner’, in this “Strauss sandwich”.’

Food seems to be a common metaphor for music with Payare. He continues: ‘Mozart is like having a small appetiser and a main course. Strauss is like a seven-course menu – there are so many layers. In Don Quixote, for example, there are places that are huge, vast and dense, and some that are as light as a feather. Strauss was a master of orchestration and knew exactly how to create the right colours.’

As for coming to London, Payare has particularly fond memories of the city from being part of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra Prom of 2007, which brought the group and the organisation’s philosophy to wider attention. He remembers: ‘It marked the orchestra in a completely different way – there was before and after the Proms. Being in London will always remind me of that. It’s a gorgeous city, with so many beautiful museums, and so many orchestras playing different repertoire all the time at the top level. It’s great.’ It is certainly great that Payare is joining the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to be part of the wonderful mix.

By Ariane Todes

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