Rafael Payare, San Diego Symphony’s incoming music director, talks auditions, repertoire and music as a family affair
Despite his growing international stature, San Diego Symphony music director designate Rafael Payare is not the type to trumpet his achievements. But he is happy to toot the horn for the 29 trumpeters and three finalists who recently auditioned to fill a spot in the orchestra, which he’ll conduct for four concerts here this week before assuming his position with the symphony full-time this summer.
Never mind that Payare couldn’t actually see any of the trumpeters (unlike the two violin finalists who auditioned the day before, after being selected from an initial pool of more than 70 violinists). That is because, as is standard for major orchestras, the trumpeters performed behind screens to ensure they be judged solely on the quality of their performances.
Each of the unseen trumpet finalists performed excerpts from the same four pieces by Beethoven, Mahler, Mussorgsky and Stravinsky. The two violin finalists played excerpts from different pieces by the same composers, plus from a Brahms violin concerto. While all 70-plus violinists initially performed behind a screen, the two finalists did not.
Some of the same pieces cited above will, not coincidentally, be featured when Payare conducts the symphony here this Thursday through Sunday.
The featured soloist at all four performances will be his wife, acclaimed cellist Alisa Weilerstein, who at the Friday through Sunday concerts will be featured in the orchestra first-ever performance of Benjamin Britten’s Symphony for Cello and Orchestra. All four shows are part of the symphony’s eclectic, month-long “Hearing the Future” series, curated by 2018 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient Matthew Aucoin.
Payare smiled when asked what qualities he listened for to differentiate the 29 trumpeters and three finalists from each other. (Because of his globe-trotting conducting schedule, he did not arrive in San Diego in time to hear the preliminary violin auditions, only the two finalists.)
“I listen for the sound, and if the sound is rich and has enough overtones,” said Payare, who knows by heart all the pieces the auditioning musicians played and did not need a score to follow along.
“When you have a trumpet player that has enough overtones, they don’t have to play as loud, but their sound will get richer. And, for this hall, that is so beautiful to hear, (because) it will get an embracing kind of sound to it. You also listen for personality and artistry. So those are the qualities that we are, all the time, trying to look for. Then you think: ‘OK, let’s see if (a trumpeter is) versatile enough to not only be able to play with power, but light ...”
A native of Venezuela, Payare lives in Berlin, Germany, with his wife and their young daughter. He spoke to the Union-Tribune during a fall interview at the symphony’s Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall. These are edited excerpts.
Q: Did you ever audition behind a screen?
A: Myself? Maybe. Yeah, I think so. Probably when I was a (French) horn player; I can’t recall. I think you block that out!
Q: I was just wondering, what is it like, psychologically, when you know the people judging your playing can only hear you?
A: I think for the player, it might be better. Because they could feel like they are alone. They don’t need to worry: “Am I looking at this jury member? Am I looking at the other?” They could be a little bit more free, if they are not seeing what is happening, (because) everything is about the sound. Also, for the jury members it’s not like: “Well, I know this person.” So it’s a good system, I think.
Q: One of the pieces you’ll be conducting here in January is Ravel’s arrangement of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” What do you try to bring to music that audiences know very well? How reverent are you to the original? How much do you try to put your mark on it?
A: Well, it’s both at the same time. Because I am very faithful (to how) the original was written. And, for some reason — I don’t know if it is the way it has been played (before), or not — it’s the way that I could hear it in my head. That’s the way I try to do it. I cannot say (my way is) new, or it’s “the truth,” but that’s the way I try to do it. ... There are many pieces I have also played (on French horn) in the orchestra, and have always wondered: “Why was it done this way? If it’s this way, why don’t (we) bring these (other) kind of colors out?” That’s kind of the way I approach the music.
Q: How important is it you know the history of a specific composition or composer?
A: For me, it matters a lot. Because … let’s say the first layer (of the music) is what you see on paper, then you try to dig into some things. When you’re trying to do the analysis, sometimes you see how it may come to change (in) one place to another, and you start to wonder why. “Why did it go in this direction? Why not the other?” And when you have a little bit of knowledge of what was happening during the time, you could say: “Ah! Maybe it was a reaction to this event that happened in (the composer’s) life ...” It’s like having more colors to use in your palette.
Q: Tell me about the first time you conducted an orchestra in Venezuela.
A: It was in 2007, and I think I was 26. The sensation was like, “Finally!” I had done some other things, conducting brass ensembles and things like that. But when I finally got to conduct the symphony orchestra and have a full program, the sensation was like when you discover air. You do not have any air and then, finally, (Payare inhaled deeply) it’s like: “Yeah! This is what it’s about!”
Q: When you perform with your wife, who decides how a piece of music should be played? Or do you both decide?
A: We both decide. The thing is — and this is why we love working with each other — we respect and admire each other as artists. Our way of making music is very similar, regarding the passion and everything you do. We don’t do things just because everybody else is doing it this way, so we want to make it different. If we make it different, it’s because we honestly think this is the way it should be done and that’s the way we hear it. What I can say, because I have seen my wife play with other conductors and orchestras, is that — of course — she takes a lot more liberties with me than with any other conductor!
San Diego Symphony presents Rafael Payare conducts Mozart and Tchaikovsky
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Tickets: $20-$105, plus service charges (concert benefits the San Diego Symphony’s Learning and Community Engagement programs)
Rafael Payare and Alisa Weilerstein
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m Sunday
Tickets: $20-$100, plus service charges
Where: Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall, 750 B St., downtown
Phone: (619) 235-0804
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