Venezuelan-born conductor Rafael Payare, music director of the San Diego Symphony, has followed a similar path to that of his better-known countryman Gustavo Dudamel: both got their start in El Sistema, their homeland’s celebrated music-education program.
Principal conductor since 2015 of the Castleton Festival, founded by Lorin Maazel, Payare assumed his latest post on July 1. Leading search efforts was a familiar figure: Martha Gilmer, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s former vice president for artistic planning and audience development, and now the San Diego Symphony’s chief executive officer. “When Rafael conducted the orchestra [last season], there was a deep connection, and the musical bond and obvious potential for their relationship was clear,” Gilmer said.
Chicago audiences will have two opportunities to see Payare in action when leads the CSO in back-to-back concerts Aug. 1 and 2 at the Ravinia Festival. Each will feature a famous symphony by Beethoven and a piano concerto by Brahms, works from the very core of the bedrock classical repertoire.
Esteemed soloist Yefim Bronfman will serve as soloist Aug. 1 in a program that will showcase Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, one of the most frequently performed works in that genre ever composed. The next night will feature another noted soloist, Emanuel Ax, in the Piano Concerto No. 2 and Symphony No. 3 (Eroica), by same the composers.
Payare, 39, served as the principal French horn player in the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, once El Sistema’s premier youth orchestra. (Led by Dudamel since 1999, the ensemble is no longer officially considered a youth orchestra.) In part inspired by the famed guest conductors who directed the ensemble, Payare began conducting studies in 2004 with José Antonio Abreu, who founded El Sistema and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra.
The budding maestro’s big break came in May 2012 when he won first prize at the Malko International Conducting Competition, which is organized by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra. He caught the attention of Lorin Maazel, who became a mentor and invited him to take part in his Castleton Festival in Virginia. After Maazel’s death in July 2014, Payare became the festival’s principal conductor. He also serves as music director of the Ulster Orchestra in Belfast, the only full-time professional orchestra in Northern Ireland.
Payare first guest conducted the San Diego Symphony in January 2018 as part of a six-week American tour, and he felt an immediate bond with the musicians. “Since the very beginning of the first rehearsal, there was a fantastic connection and the concert went really, really well,” he said. Gilmer and members of the orchestra’s board approached him during his visit and said they were strongly considering him for the music directorship. Their interest was so keen that they followed him the next week to Illinois, where he made his subscription debut with the CSO. A few days later, the officials offered him the San Diego job, and he accepted.
He believes in a motivating principle: “The most important thing is [an orchestra’s] artistic development and achievement because the art itself is food for the soul,” he said. “The rest is noise.”