San Diego Symphony music director designate Rafael Payare is already cooking things up here


Rafael Payare, the San Diego Symphony’s music director designate, received his official welcome Monday from an orchestra, city and region eager to start a new musical era. When the charismatic Venezuelan conductor begins his tenure next year, he will become the 13th music director in the 108-year history of the orchestra, the oldest in California.

Payare, 38, wasted no time in setting the bar high and wide, pledging to strive for musical excellence and to reach across real and imagined borders.

“It’s so close! Mexico is right over there,” he told an audience of civic and arts leaders, symphony patrons, orchestra members and media members gathered on the stage of Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall. “It will be wonderful to see different parts of the community come together.”

San Diego Symphony music director designate Rafael Payare excited to begin new job here

Payare elaborated on this theme in a separate Union-Tribune interview earlier Monday morning.

“The beauty of music is you don’t need words,” he said.

“Without needing to try and impose anything, music can make people change and hear each other … and that will make the overtones much more meaningful. It will be easy. Instead of (focusing on) walls and differences, it can bring what we already have together and make a nice melody.”

Payare was also interviewed in Spanish by two TV news crews from Tijuana. His selection to head the symphony — and the borders-blurring, bridge-extending attributes he brings to his new position — were hailed from both within and without the orchestra.

“We could not be more thrilled and were really proud to have been part of the process,” said veteran San Diego Symphony violinist Kate Hatmaker, one of the orchestra’s three musicians who served on the search committee that selected Payare. He made his debut here conducting the symphony in January, then was named music director designate in February.

“Our interactions with Rafael so far have shown him to be a very thoughtful, genuine and passionate music-maker, and that’s what struck us the most,” Hatmaker said. “I think this is a great story for our region — his selection is representative of an era where the San Diego Symphony can be a leader in inclusivity.”

Her sentiments were heartily seconded by UC San Diego music professor Steven Schick, who was the featured percussion soloist during Payare’s San Diego Symphony concerts earlier this year.

“As a conductor, sometimes you get someone who is reliable — or musical. In Rafael, we get both. We’re excited and thrilled, both with his musicality and with what he brings on a level of cultural interaction,” said Schick, the music director of the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus.

“I’ve often thought San Diego should be the geographic and cultural portal to Latin America. With Rafael in town, and other energies, we stand a good chance to coalesce a major engagement with music and musicians from Latin America and beyond.”

The audience on hand to greet Payare Monday included leading San Diego philanthropists Joan and Irwin Jacobs, Athenaeum Music & Arts Library Executive Director Erika Torri, La Jolla Playhouse Artistic Director Christopher Ashley, Fresh Sound concert series founder Bonnie Wright and Villa Musica director Fiona Chatwin. San Diego City Council member Chris Ward came armed with a proclamation from the mayor’s office declaring Monday “Rafael Payare Day.”

The conductor was preceded on the Copley Symphony Hall stage by several dignitaries, including Salk Institute Professor of Molecular Neurobiology Greg Lemke, symphony Board Chairman Dr. Warren O. Kessler, Port of San Diego Board Commissioner Rafael Castellanos and symphony CEO Martha Gilmer.

“This is a magnificent day,” Kessler told the audience. “I will tell you, unequivocally, that the orchestra, the (search) committee and the board of directors got it right.”

Gilmer recalled a party here in January that Payare attended with his wife, cello star Alisa Weilerstein, and 50 or so of San Diego’s arts and cultural leaders.

“Rafael immediately realized the depth of knowledge and caring in this community,” Gilmer said. She then proudly recounted the Schick-led, symphony-produced concert here in January, which took place on both sides of the San Diego/Tijuana border wall at International Friendship Park.

“After it was over, one of the Border Patrol agents said: ‘Events here are at the border are always about our differences as two nations — this one was all about our similarities. When it was over, I missed it. I did not want it to end’,” a beaming Gilmer said.

“Music does that. We do not want it to end.”

Like Gilmer and the San Diego Symphony, Payare is eager to expand the reach of the orchestra and draw new listeners of all ages.

“Those people are even more interesting to reach out to,” he told the Union-Tribune. “Because they don’t know (the music) or try to say: ‘I recognize this or that,’ you get from them more of a gut reaction. They feel moved or not moved, or hectic, or dizzy.

“It’s fantastic, because they come not knowing they are supposed to feel that way, but they do, and that’s the powerful thing about music. It gets to you. That’s what I love with music. It’s a universal language. You don’t need to know anything. You just feel it, or you don’t.”

The next opportunity for San Diegans to hear Payare in action here with the orchestra will come on Jan. 10, when he conducts a concert featuring works by Mozart, Mussorgsky and Richard Strauss. From Jan. 11-13, he’ll conduct the orchestra in works by Strauss, Shostakovich and Britten.

Shostakovich, Payare told the Union-Tribune, is one of the composers whose music he would be interested in conducting for an entire cycle of performances with the San Diego Symphony. He also cited Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and “maybe even Bruckner” as possible cycle artists, while stressing no decisions have been made yet and that the needs of the audience — as well as the orchestra — need to be taken into account. And, if all goes according to plan, he will also gradually add some new contemporary works to the orchestra’s repertoire.

Payare, who has conducted many of the world’s greatest orchestras, spoke enthusiastically about his lifelong love affair with music. He regards his pending tenure with the San Diego Symphony as both a joint opportunity and an adventure.

“I want to do what is right for the orchestra and the audience, and enjoy the journey,” he said.

“The orchestra needs the right balance to play in a fresh and transparent way. It’s like having a glass of Champagne. It must be the right temperature.”

Twitter @georgevarga