This season’s first five weekends will be led by Payare, for a total of 10 performances, with more to come in 2020
To an outsider, it may seem like Rafael Payare’s opening weekend as the new music director of the San Diego Symphony was a longtime coming. For the conductor, it was a bit of a time warp.
“It felt fast at the very beginning of 2018, with my first concert and then the appointment (as music director),” said Payare, speaking recently from his home in Berlin. “But then I was looking forward and it felt far in the future and a long way away. It’s a cliché, but time flies and now the season opening is around the corner. So, I feel now that everything happened at exactly the right time.”
Celebrating her fifth anniversary this month as the San Diego Symphony’s CEO, Martha Gilmer, who oversaw the three-year conductor search, sees it in much the same way.
“Some may have thought it was long,” she said from her downtown office. “For me, it seemed well-paced. The orchestra had to decide their approach to music-making and community and what they’re looking forward to. The process was already coalesced when Rafael came.
“It felt just right. (Since his appointment), we’ve gotten to know each other. And Rafael’s gotten to know the orchestra just enough. They have knowledge of their artistic meeting of the minds. The season is highly energized, combustible — in the best possible way.”
It’s no coincidence that this weekend’s concerts feature a highly charged pair of pieces on Saturday and Sunday at Copley Symphony Hall. The emotional roller-coaster ride of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony will follow “Alternative Energy,” the four-part, electronica-infused opus by Mason Bates, named the 2018 Composer of the Year by the preeminent magazine Musical America.
How the road goes
This season’s first five weekends will be led by Payare, for a total of 10 performances, with more to come in 2020. The Venezuelan-born conductor will lead the San Diego Symphony through mid-November, before conductor laureate Jahja Ling takes to the podium for concerts in early December.
Payare has conducted the orchestra several times before, but this is the first time he will conduct such a long string of consecutive Jacob Masterworks concerts.
“It’s going to be wonderful,” Payare said. “Our first five weeks can’t pass without our getting to better know each other. The repertoire is very diverse. Let’s get to know where we want to go. It’s such a variety of music, we’ll be seeing how the road goes as we ride along.”
The symphony’s Nov. 15 and 17 “Don Quixote” concerts will feature world renowned cellist Alisa Weilerstein, who is married to Payare. The couple, who are constantly on tour, have a 3-1/2-year-old daughter, Ariadna, who stays with either parent, or both, contingent on their concert schedules.
“Depending on who is traveling less, Ariadna and our wonderful nanny, Gabriela, go with that person,” Payare explained. “During the spring, I had to be in England for two months, so we made our base there while I was conducting at the Glyndebourne Festival. Alisa came in and out, depending on her concerts.”
Both old, both new
Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 was composed over the summers of 1901 and 1902. The work is known for its unusual structure and its dramatic changes of mood.
In composer Mason Bates’ words, “Alternative Energy” is “an ‘energy symphony’ spanning four movements and hundreds of years.” It begins in Midwest America in the late 19th century and ends in China in 2112. The symphonic work, a San Diego Symphony debut, integrates electronica, hip-hop, jazz and industrial sounds.
“Old and new live within both pieces. Mahler’s work is old, but he was breaking all the rules,” Gilmer said. “He came up with new sounds of percussion and he lengthened this thing we call a symphony — he stretched it out.
“Mason is Mahlerian in having us understand music and how it reflects the world we live in. Both composers make statements about the world — they demonstrate it in explosive ways. It’s a perfect pairing.”
While this is the first time Payare will conduct a work by Bates, he has conducted Mahler symphonies many times, including with Europe’s Mahler Chamber Orchestra. In May, he conducted Mahler’s Fifth with the Ulster Orchestra. He was its music director from 2014-2019 and is now conductor laureate.
Known for often conducting from memory, without a score, Payare said he may use a score for the more unfamiliar “Alternative Energy.” But he won’t need one for Mahler.
“Mahler has this power,” Payare said. “He creates a huge universe with different planets, galaxies — everything! I heard his music first in Venezuela, of course, (around) 1996. I was completely mesmerized; it was mind-blowing. Mahler has a power that takes you to his world immediately. If you are willing and like his world, you discover so many things.
“Mahler is very close to my heart. And playing Mahler with an orchestra that’s going to be my companion — the San Diego Symphony — is even better.”
Rafael Payare’s opening weekend: Mahler 5
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall, 750 B St., downtown
Phone: (619) 235-0804
Rafael Payare’s fall concerts in 2019
Oct. 5 and 6: “Mahler 5”
Oct. 11 and 12: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” featuring Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson, San Diego Master Chorale, actors and video projections
Nov. 1 and 2: “Beethoven & Tchaikovsky,” featuring Russian-American pianist Kirill Gerstein
Nov. 8 and 10: “Beethoven’s Eroica,” featuring German soprano Dorothea Röschmann
Nov. 15 and 17: “Bach, Bloch & Don Quixote,” featuring cellist Alisa Weilerstein and the symphony’s principal violist Chi-Yuan Chen
Wood is a freelance writer.