Q & A: Rafael Payare on his Big Dreams for the San Diego Symphony

By Francisco Salazar

Rafael Payare dreams big.

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

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

But it didn’t stop the conductor from creating. During that time the conductor found ways to make collaborate with his musicians, starting with chamber music showcases and slowly expanding until the orchestra reunited for a drive-in performance of “La Bohème.”

During that time, the organization was in the midst of building a new venue, the Rady Shell, an outdoor stage that would allow the orchestra to perform out in the open all year round. Now with life returning to its new normal, Payare’s major dreams for the orchestra can move forward and this season, which is off to an acclaimed start, shows promise for what he has to offer to audiences in San Diego.

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

OperaWire: You became Music Director for the 2019-20 season but it was cut short due to the pandemic. Now that we are back to performing live, what is your vision for the San Diego Symphony?

Rafael Payare: I like to dream big and we have a lot of great plans for the orchestra with Martha A. Gilmer. 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 it can have national and international recognition. We also want to do some educational projects. I come from El Sistema in Venezuela and I want to apply some of what I learned from there in Tijuana. So we have a lot of projects that we would like to accomplish here.

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

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

The orchestra also now has its own space for outdoor concerts. Before we would have to construct the stage and now with this new stage we can have it all year. Since San Diego is always warm throughout the year, we can use it all year and we can connect now with the entire community.

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

RP: I began during the 2019-20 season and every time we work together we learn more about each other and our relationship deepens. That allows us to take more musical risks. But unfortunately, COVID-19 only allowed us to work for six weeks together and that stopped our growth. However, we began working on small concerts with six players and expanded. We would have never been able to work like this in other times had it not been for COVID. Of course, that doesn’t mean this pandemic was a good thing, it was a silver lining and was phenomenal for working in detail. We were able to work with small groups and eventually expand them to eventually get the entire orchestra together. We were able to get to know each other on another level and that is great.

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

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

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

RP: I like to try and plan a program like a complete voyage. I am trying to do a Tchaikovsky cycle and am trying to do a song cycle of Mahler’s work as well as Berg and Schoenberg. I am trying 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 arrived here we opened with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and that was part of my Mahler cycle.

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

OW: Do you plan on bringing more opera to the Rady Shell?

RP: I remember when they showed me sketches for the shell and I thought, “What is more dramatic than that stage?” 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 projections onto the Shell so that will be great when we do a Ring Cycle. The possibilities are infinite and we have to try to do as much as we can. And Wagner’s operas are a dream and we are close to doing those.

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

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

OW: San Diego has a large Latin American community. As a Latino what are some of your plans in bringing the music to that community?

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


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