Rafael Payare Leads Ulster Orchestra

34-year-old new chief conductor challenges audiences with debut 2014-15 season

Musical relationships are like any relationships, really: there is frequently no telling where that special zing of empathy or fellow-feeling comes from which magnetically binds certain people together, or why simple friendship or collegiality can suddenly become something deeper.

Thus it was with Rafael Payare when he first conducted the Ulster Orchestra, at a routine subscription concert in October 2013. There was, by all accounts, an immediate rapport between Payare and the players, a frisson of mutual excitement and recognition.

Why exactly? Payare has no ready explanation or answer. ‘It was one of those things you absolutely cannot explain with words,’ he remembers. ‘You start rehearsing, and we connect. We got along very well immediately, and this magic happened.’

That first, energising encounter initiated a rapid period of engagement with the Ulster Orchestra’s management, who just weeks later offered Payare the post of Chief Conductor, replacing the departing JoAnn Falletta.

Payare accepted, and a mere 11 months after his first visit to Belfast, mounted the podium at the Ulster Hall on Friday, September 19 to launch the 2014-15 season with a programme including Beethoven’s monumental Ninth Symphony.

It’s been a heady period for Payare professionally, but he points to a number of special qualities in the Ulster Orchestra organisation that made the decision to accept his first chief conductorship ultimately an easy one.

‘It’s a fantastic group of people,’ he comments. 'Not only in the orchestra, but in the administration. Everybody is very kind and attentive, and very willing to help you make music.’

Niceness on its own is, however, not enough to reach the higher echelons of performance in classical music, and Payare waxes lyrical about the orchestra’s technical facility in particular. ‘The reading of the orchestra is fantastic,’ he enthuses, referring to the players’ ability to look at music they’ve seldom if at all seen previously, and immediately make a confident, assured performance of it.

‘They are very, very quick. When you make a second run-through it’s like you’ve been having three or four rehearsals with a normal orchestra, and that is great.’

Payare is also, like many conductors before him, full of praise for the Ulster Hall – the official home of the Ulster Orchestra – which he views as an ideal space for performing and listening to classical music.

‘It’s a beautiful, beautiful hall,’ he enthuses. ‘Somehow you get the feeling that the audience is not too far away, but not too into the orchestra. So you can interact with the audience, and the acoustic itself is very, very good. Of course as musicians our presentation card is the sound. So when the hall speaks and lets you go, that’s a fantastic feeling. It’s very enjoyable to play in this kind of hall.’

Payare’s initial contract will run for a three-year period, and he has wasted no time in announcing his first two major projects: performing the complete symphonic output of both Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, 16 symphonies in total.

Why these two composers, in particular? ‘Both of them are very dear to me,’ Payare explains. ‘These two composers are also very good for developing the sound of the orchestra, getting to know each other in a nice way.’

Payare is, however, insistent that contemporary music matters too – the Beethoven Ninth Symphony with which he opens the season will, for instance, be coupled with the Three Chinese Songs by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, with whom Payare has cultivated a close working relationship.

‘We need to be playing the composers of our day,’ he argues. ‘They need to be heard. Time will say whether they are good or not, whether they write masterpieces or not. But if we stop playing them, the music would be extinct very soon. It’s very important for the survival of classical music.’

Payare acknowledges that it is difficult to find a balance in concert programmes between popular core repertoire and more modern pieces, to which there can be a degree of audience resistance. ‘There’s a very fine line. It has to be done in the right way, so that people don’t get scared.’

The 34-year-old is certainly not fighting shy of the challenge – no fewer than 11 living composers are included in the orchestra’s 2014-15 season, with ten works being heard for the first time in Northern Ireland, including two UK premieres.

Payare is also bringing with him a slew of highly colourful pieces from his native Latin America – by composers such as Estévez, Carreño, Castellanos, Moncayo and Marquez – for a special Sunday evening concert in January.

It’s music which, as a Venezuelan, Payare has in his bloodstream, and which he insists requires a special empathy to perform properly: ‘It’s fantastic music, but I think people are afraid of it because somehow it has not been programmed.’

The key to eliminating the fear factor, says Payare, is having the intuition and flexibility to get those famous Latin-American rhythms dancing. ‘You can see a rhythm and measure it mathematically, and it can seem perfect. But to make it actually sound Latin-American, it has to have a little bit of ease in it. If you just play it with a steady rhythm it doesn’t sound good.’

Talk of Latin America and his homeland leads Payare to reflect upon his own musical education, as part of Venezuela’s famous ‘El Sistema’, a state-funded programme bringing classical music to the children of the country, with a heavy emphasis on the underprivileged and disadvantaged.

Payare, who trained as a horn player, is himself a product of that system, and a burning advocate of how classical music is not just for a cossetted elite, but can literally change the life prospects of anyone who becomes actively involved in it.

‘I have seen for myself that it really, really makes a huge difference, it can make you a totally different person. I come absolutely from El Sistema, all my studies have been in El Sistema, since 1994. I am the person that I am because of it.’

Payare will, sadly, encounter a distinctly less visionary attitude to music education in his new post in Belfast, with distinctly lower levels of subsidy and funding from civic and political institutions available to arts organisations in Northern Ireland.

If that niggardliness bothers Payare, he isn’t saying so, for the moment at least. Instead, he prefers to focus firmly on the exciting challenges awaiting him at Ulster Orchestra headquarters in Bedford Street. 

Next up for Payare is the Belfast Festival at Queen's, at which the Ulster Orchestra have a series of concerts scheduled. Payare will take to the podium for A Fanfare to Fate, to conduct Northern Irish pianist Barry Douglas performing a piece by Northern Irish composer Simon Mawhinney.

Belfast audiences will certainly see a lot of Payare in the months ahead: he is scheduled to conduct over a quarter of the 40-odd concerts his new orchestra will give this season.

Visit the Ulster Orchestra website for information on forthcoming concerts and events. View the full Belfast Festival at Queen's programme.