Q&A: Rafael Payare on his big dreams for the San Diego Symphony

Rafael Payare dreams big.

The Venezuelan conductor arrived in San Diego in the 2019-20 season ready to make his mark with the orchestra and make it one of the leading American orchestras in the world.

But that dream was slowed down in March 2020 when the pandemic struck.

But that didn’t stop the conductor from creating. Meanwhile, the conductor has found ways to collaborate with his musicians, starting with chamber music showcases and slowly expanding until the orchestra comes together for a drive-through performance of ” Bohemian “.

Meanwhile, the organization was building a new venue, the Rady Shell, an outdoor stage that would allow the orchestra to perform outdoors year round. Now that life is returning to its new normal, Payare’s major dreams for the orchestra can move forward and this season, which had an acclaimed start, holds promise for what it has to offer San audiences. Diego.

OperaWire had the opportunity to speak to the conductor about the pandemic, the new Rady Shell, his repertoire dreams and how he will make classical music more accessible to the general public.

OperaWire: You became musical director for the 2019-2020 season but it was cut short due to the pandemic. Now that we’re back to performing, what’s your take on the San Diego Symphony?

Rafael Payare: I like to dream big and we have a lot of big plans for the orchestra with Martha Gilmore. One of the first things was the Rady Shell which we have now opened and we want to make sure that the orchestra continues to grow artistically. We also want to continue to develop so that it has national and international recognition. We also want to do educational projects. I am from El Sistema in Venezuela and I want to apply some of what I learned there in Tijuana. So we have a lot of projects that we would like to do here.

OW: Tell me about your work in this new open-air space, the Rady Shell?

RP: It’s phenomenal not only for the orchestra but for the city. It’s a new space that’s beautiful and fantastic. The view of the water always gives you that air that helps you dream and puts you in another context. But what’s important is how we can make music on this stage. With this sound system in the middle of the stage, you can actually work on the details and textures of the music. We also want to try to take artistic challenges to another level. The sound is so good that we sometimes forget that we are in an open-air shell and that we think we are in a normal concert hall. It is phenomenal and I am very happy.

The orchestra now also has its own space for outdoor concerts. Before we had to build the stage and now with this new stage we can have it all year round. Since San Diego is always hot year round, we can use it year round and now we can connect with the whole community.

OW: You arrived two years ago as Music Director. How did your relationship with the orchestra develop?

RP: I started in the 2019-20 season and every time we work together we learn more about each other and our relationship deepens. This allows us to take more musical risks. But unfortunately, COVID-19 only allowed us to work six weeks together and that stunted our growth. However, we started to work on small concerts with six musicians and we expanded. We could never have worked like this at other times without COVID. Of course, that didn’t mean this pandemic was a good thing, it was a silver lining and was phenomenal for working into the details. We were able to work with small groups and eventually expand them to finally bring the whole orchestra together. We got to know each other on another level and it’s great.

OW: You are very passionate on stage and it shows in the way the music is heard. Tell me about your leadership style.

RP: Coming from El Sistema, we were always taught how important the work was and it was about giving 200 to 300% and trying to be as faithful to the music. It was also about telling the story that the composer wanted to tell and transmit to the public. This is the best way to describe why I do what I do. I never try to do anything flashy. I just want to play some music and see where it takes us.

OW: Tell me about how you program. How do you choose your repertoire when deciding on a concert?

RP: I like to try to plan a program like a complete trip. I’m trying to cycle Tchaikovsky and I try to cycle songs from Mahler’s work as well as Berg and Schoenberg. I try to put everything I can and try to bring it to the audience and at the same time create a line between the works. For example, we opened with Mahler’s First Symphony in its symphonic poem format and when I got here we opened with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and that was part of my Mahler cycle.

This recent program with Wayfarer Songs and Boulanger’s pieces was a way of experiencing nature. It was a way of making the link between pieces that represent nature. One through the song and the other which is like a portrait. Finally, the Tchaikovsky was part of the cycle of symphonies that we did.

OW: Do you plan to bring more operas to Rady Shell?

RP: I remember when they showed me sketches for the seashell and I thought, “What is more dramatic than this scene? The collaboration with the San Diego Opera is there and we can do opera in concert. I want to do Wagner and we can actually do some projections on the hull, so that will be great when we do a ring cycle. The possibilities are endless and we must try to do as much as possible. And Wagner’s operas are a dream and we are on the verge of making them come true.

OW: What kind of collaborations can we expect with the San Diego Opera?

RP: They have always had this collaboration and the orchestra still plays with opera. We did a little collaboration during the pandemic in which the opera presented a drive-in production of “La Bohème” in October 2020. Everyone was in lockdown and it was unconventional. It was all phenomenal. It was very inventive and it worked really well. I know we are going to work a lot together and it will be great.

OW: San Diego has a large Latin American community. As a Latino, what are your plans to bring music to this community?

RP: Music is not a privilege and it should be for everyone. Sometimes we think classical music is not for us. I am Venezuelan and I am Latin. It’s the music that fascinates me. We recently did a concert called “A Concert for San Diego” in Petco Park and it was a free concert. We offered a varied repertoire and the result was brilliant. There were people who loved it and told me if it was classical music I would listen to it. This is the best compliment I have ever received. I think if you expose people to music, the music does all the work. This is what we have to do. We also want to work with Tijuana and I will go there and work with them too.


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