San Diego Symphony names Rafael Payare as its next music director

  • Internationally acclaimed conductor Rafael Payare has been named as the San Diego Symphony’s new music director.
  • He has conducted some of the world’s leading orchestras, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
  • The 37-year-old Venezuela native has signed a four-year contract and will make his San Diego debut as music director with the symphony in January.
  • He is a product of the same Venezuelan education program, El Sistema, as Gustavo Dudamel, the 37-year-old music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
  • Payare is married to cello star Alisa Weilerstein. When not embarked on concert tours, they live in Berlin with their young daughter.

Rafael Payare, one of the classical music world’s most charismatic and acclaimed young conductors, has been selected as the San Diego Symphony’s next music director, the orchestra announced Tuesday morning.

The 37-year-old Venezuela native will succeed Jahja Ling, who last year concluded his 13th and final season with the symphony.

Payare, now music director-designate, will formally assume his role as music director July 1, 2019. Payare will continue in his current role as music director of Northern Ireland’s Ulster Orchestra.

Payare has signed a four-year contract, with options to renew, and it calls for him to conduct 10 weeks here each season. His salary was not disclosed.

Payare will be the 15th conductor since 1910 to guide the symphony, which gained long-term financial security in 2002 following a $120 million pledge from Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs and his wife, Joan.

Payare is a product of El Sistema, the Venezuelan education program that trained his friend, fellow conductor Gustavo Dudamel, the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

‘A terrific fit for our orchestra and city’

Payare made his debut with the symphony weeks ago as part of the “It’s About Time” festival. He served as the guest conductor for the “Fascinating Rhythm” concerts Jan. 13-14 that featured Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, Berlioz’s Roman Carnival and the San Diego debut of Roberto Sierra’s Percussion Concerto, a showcase for San Diego percussion master Steven Schick.

From the opening bars of the Berlioz, which Payare conducted from memory without using a score, his command of the music was palpable. So was the strong chemistry he had with the orchestra, which soared in unison with him.

Payare was equally impressive conducting the Prokofiev symphony and the Sierra concerto, a contemporary work that required a completely different aesthetic approach than the other two pieces featured.

“I knew Rafael was the one right then, with the Berlioz,” said symphony CEO Martha Gilmer, who first heard Payare conduct in 2015 at the Aspen Festival in Colorado.

“There was a beautiful clarity and sound of the orchestra, a unanimity of approach and an assurance and confidence. Rafael is great. He’s thoughtful, very funny, engaging and an extremely refined musician. I think it’s going to be a terrific fit for our orchestra, our city and region.

“What drew us to him, first and foremost, was the quality of his music-making. There are other components to that, including finding musicians to fill vacancies, as they occur. So that will create the dynamic and sound of the orchestra, and Rafael will have a discerning role in that, without question. I’m also excited by the fact that he is Latin American and he’s spent a lot of his professional life in Europe. He brings a lot to our city and we talked about the bi-national work we want to continue doing. He has an international perspective — and we are an international city — and that can only benefit the orchestra and the citizens here.”

Gilmer’s enthusiasm is shared by Dr. Warren Kessler, the symphony’s chairman of the board, which he joined in 1981. Along with Gilmer, he was one of the nine members of symphony’s search committee, which unanimously selected Payare. Kessler and Gilmer heard him conduct at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles before his San Diego debut, and in Chicago after Payare’s January concerts here.

“I think this is a seminal event for the San Diego Symphony — it’s that special,” Kessler said. “It’s a tremendous coup for the symphony, because we’re hiring an internationally recognized conductor who has conducted virtually all the great orchestras of the world and is in a key formative period of his career. I think his selection will reap huge benefits for the symphony and San Diego.”

In an intriguing coincidence, Payare is married to noted cellist Alisa Weilerstein, whose brother, conductor Joshua Weilerstein, was one of the initial eight candidates considered to replace Ling as the symphony’s new music director. In another coincidence, Weilerstein tours the world performing with pianist Inon Barnatan, who last week was named the new music director of the La Jolla Music Society’s annual SummerFest.

“When you hear Inon, you think: ‘This is special, this is top-class,” said Payare, whose description of Barnatan might well apply to Payare himself.

Perfect alignment

When not on the road, Payare and his wife live in Berlin with their young daughter. Speaking from Belfast, Northern Ireland, he sounded both elated and humbled about his new position in San Diego.

“Every single thing is aligned in the right way,” Payare said. “The chemistry with the orchestra and the plans they have with the community and to develop as an arts organization are all aligned with me.

“Now is when the fun begins! What has the orchestra achieved in the past, and what do we want to do together? What kind of repertoire do we want to do? I know they have not done any cycles (of works by revered composers), and I think that is very important. We have to think about how we do it and how we keep developing the sound and vision that is already here, but also to make the view — and the repertoire — larger, many things. Now we’ll start talking and making plans.”

Payare often conducts from memory to remove barriers between him and the orchestra he is leading.

“It’s very important you don’t have your head in the score, but the score in your head. That way you don’t have a wall between you and the musicians.

“If you are just looking at the score and not what is happening, you may not see that somebody in the orchestra needs a little more time to take a breath. The contact is much better when everybody is locked in together.”

Yet, while Payare thrives on the concert stage, he is equally excited about the work that goes into planning each season of music.

“That’s the most fun part,” he said. “Because you put together the skeleton of how to develop, and — at the same time — you have to offer a balance for the audience. We need to develop at the same time as the orchestra and make it appealing to listeners. This is just the beginning of the ride.”

An extended, continent-jumping search

The symphony did not rush into its search to find a new music director, devoting more than two years to its quest to find the ideal conductor to guide and help shape the orchestra.

Gilmer and Kessler were part of a nine-person search committee, which included three performing members of the orchestra, three symphony board members and three staff members.

Their search extended across North America to Europe and back. It included nearly 20 guest conductors who led the symphony in concerts here, including Holland’s Edo de Waart, Romania’s Cristian Macelaru, Mexico’s Carlos Miguel Prieto and New York-born Karina Canellakis.

“My approach was to look at a broad range of conductors from all over the world, at various stages in their career, just to see what was the best match,” Gilmer said.

“It’s really about (them having) chemistry with an orchestra. I thought we had spectacular people coming here over the past two and a half years. And when you look back, it’s a time of change and also growth for the orchestra to be exposed to that many musical points of view — and also for an audience to hear and experience that. So the process is vitally important.”

In Payare, the symphony has a skilled and charismatic music director. He brings to the concert stage a degree of musical insight and skill that his exceeds his 37 years, combined with a youthful sense of ebullience that should elevate the musicians and their listeners alike.

Together with Gilmer and the symphony, Payare envisions a bright future for all concerned.

“Martha has an amazing depth of experience in artistic planning, so it will be great to have this kind of conversation,” he said.

“Brainstorming about the repertoire we’ll play together is the best way to do anything. You start thinking: ‘How could we make this orchestra sound different, and offer the audience something good, something great, for the orchestra’s sound and development?’ ”

Might the orchestra’s future repertoire include any music by Antonio Laura, Inocente Careno or any other notable composers from Payare’s homeland?

“Well, why not? It could be,” he said, chuckling. “There are many things we can do together.”

george.varga@sduniontribune.com

Twitter @georgevarga

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