Speaking With Ulster Orchestra's Rafael Payare

The Venezuelan Sistema graduate speaks of his debut with the Ulster Orchestra

Talking to the Ulster Orchestra's recently appointed Venezuelan Chief Conductor Rafael Payare the day Claudio Abbado died is sad but also illuminating. The BBC want to talk to Payare live from Sweden to get his memories of the great Italian maestro as he worked as his assistant conductor on a 2010 performance of Tchaikovsky's Sixth. There is a sense of the baton being handed on as Payare (33) is one of the star conductors of his generation.

Payare says he didn't hear the news which broke on January 20 immediately: ‘Well, I was rehearsing here in Helsingborg this morning and of course I wasn't checking my phone but my wife sent me a message about Abbado, and I felt a very deep sadness in my body and my mind. We have lost a great artist.’

He adds that he has a clear memory of Abbado gaining energy from conducting Tchaikovsky's Pathetique, a work edged with mortality whose premiere the composer led nine days before he died. Payare recalls: ‘I remember very clearly, we played the Sixth in Lucerne at the festival there. When the symphony was about to start and Abbado was backstage, he was just like a little boy, very excited. At Lucerne, it was just one of those remarkable concerts with great energy.’

Rafael Payare, who started out in music as a French horn player with the acclaimed Simon Bolivar Orchestra, said he'd also had the pleasure of playing under Abbado at Lucerne. ‘He was a fantastic conductor, always aiming for the best art. He didn't care about anything but the music - and had the fastest ever left hand.’

When Rafael Payare came to Belfast last October to conduct the Ulster Orchestra, he did not realise the performance would turn out to be a kind of audition. ‘I had no idea they were looking for a Chief Conductor but the programme I conducted was very nice. It included Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin, Shostakovich's piano concertos number 1 and 2 and The Firebird (1919).'

Talking about the different timbres or voices of different orchestras, Payare says he was impressed by the Ulster Orchestra's ability to segue between the different sounds on this programme. ‘The Ravel is very transparent, light with a Baroque sound, the Shostakovich has some of the sound of the earth and Stravinsky is as beautiful as we know him to be. But it was great that somehow we connected from the first rehearsal. The orchestra was very responsive, it was a nice ride. So when they approached me about the job, I thought 'Yeah, why not?'.

Maestro Payare takes up the job in September although he is coming to town in March to conduct the orchestra in a concert on March 12 and do some preliminary work on the music programme that starts in West Belfast in 2015. His musical career began via the well known musical programme for young people in Venezuela, called simply El Sistema. Although Rafael's late parents were not musical, he and his brother signed up to this publicly funded project which economist and musician José Antonio Abreu founded back in 1975.

Rafael says: ‘They take young people from all backgrounds, who maybe can't afford an instrument. Now children start from as young as one, but I started quite late at 13. My brother Joel played bassoon but said he was too lazy to continue so he went into mechanical engineering.’

Rafael, of course, continued. He knew early on that he had ambitions to stand out front. ‘It was always in the back of my head. I used to conduct my brass quintet and when Italian maestro Giuseppe Sinopoli, may he RIP, visited the National Youth Orchestra, he changed the sound with just a few gestures which was incredible. Then one day maestro Abreu saw me with the quintet one day. He said 'I think you have what it takes.'‘ As Payare tells it, his 19-year-old self went into orbit at the validation. ‘Oh, it was a firework.’

Part of his musical philosophy comes from El Sistema and the idea that music bridges economic and political divides. With the Ulster Orchestra, maestro Payare will be helping roll out a programme of music education based on this idea. Asked whether music can heal conflict, Payare sounds 100% confident. ‘Yes, music can totally heal divisions. When you play it doesn't matter which religion you come from or which political or sectarian background you have, you just play.’

Payare is now married to cellist Alisa Weilerstein and they try to ensure their programmes coincide. Rafael says: ‘We try to plan that. Before there would be huge delays on planes in Venezuela when she was coming over from abroad. These days we chase each other.’

He remains understandably proud of what he and his friends achieved with the Simon Bolivar orchestra, saying ‘It was a once in a lifetime opportunity and it's now great. In Simon Bolivar, we built the tradition and maestro Abreu taught us to do something as if it took our last breath of life.’ In terms of conductors that Payare admires, the list includes Bernard Haitink, Sir Simon Rattle, Maazel and Leonard Bernstein.
There has been a debate recently on Radio 3 over whether a conductor is really necessary. You can hear Payare smile down the line at the question. ‘Well, 120 players may have different ideas about a piece and our job is to get them to go for one idea, not their own interpretation. Even the Berlin Philharmonic, a super-brilliant orchestra, they need a conductor.’

The point is made, and Ulster Orchestra's conducting lineage has developed the orchestra's sound with imaginative appointments. Yan Pascal Tortelier, Vernon Handley and most recently American JoAnn Falletta who brought what one reviewer called the energy of Bernstein and enthusiasm for a new repertoire. This year a new era will begin with Payare on the podium, bringing enthusiasm, uncut energy and his own style.

Talking of the new music programme, Payare says simply: ’Music is so great, it opens many things, Baroque, classic, Romantic, modern, contemporary. Why not share it?’.

Visit the Ulster Orchestra website for information on their upcoming events.