Rafael Payare

Author: Clemency Burton-Hill

Meet the winner of the 2012 Malko Conducting Competition

How is it to be in Los Angeles, assisting your old friend and compatriot Gustavo Dudamel at the Hollywood Bowl – sounds like a lot of fun?
Yes, it’s amazing. It’s my first time at the Bowl, and I’m so impressed by the whole thing – there are so many thousands of people coming, just bringing a picnic, having dinner… It’s very different from Venezuela where we are still discovering a bunch of stuff and don’t have, so much, the tradition like here in the Bowl or in Tanglewood, where I also just was. In Venezuela it all feels much more new – although experiencing things for the first time is also fantastic, of course!

What else is on the horizon?
Most of my commitments over the next few years will be in Europe and I am looking forward to all of it! I will make my debut next season in Dublin, Toulouse, Valencia; there are so many things I’m excited about. Also I will go to Gothenburg, to perform with Alisa [Weilerstein, cellist, his girlfriend] which is where we first met. So that will be very nice. I’m just looking forward to all of it – there are so many things I want to explore in the next few years, including the opera world…

Congratulations on winning the Malko Competition this year! How was that?
The whole experience was amazing. There’s a lot of repertoire for each round, and you don’t have a lot of time so you have to show in a very limited time what you can do. That jury, with people like Maestro Maazel, means that just to be there is a huge achievement. The orchestra helps a lot, but it’s like wow, it’s really tense! I’ve never experienced anything like it! The Spanish speakers formed a little gang (there was another Venezuelan Hernan Rodriguez and Antonio Mendez from Spain), and whenever we finished we would go out, hang out, try to not talk about it – to just talk about football, or whatever, to take away the pressure.

As a platform it must have opened a lot of doors?
It’s a dream come true. They give you this immense opportunity to work with these orchestras, 24 European symphony orchestras, and also the ability to go to the US with Maestro Maazel. As a young conductor you couldn’t ask for more.

How have you found working with Maestro Maazel?
He has done everything, a huge amount of repertoire in his life, but he is also an incredible person; not only great as a conductor and musician, but an amazing, sweet guy. He acts like a proud father to me. He has been giving me advice about repertoire, and I hope we will keep in touch and he will be some kind of mentor.

Like Dudamel, you grew up learning music as part of the El Sistema movement in Venezuela. Has José Antonio Abreu, founder of El Sistema, also been a great mentor to you?
The whole thing, why I am here, is thanks to Maestro Abreu. The way he teaches us, the slogan of El Sistema, is ‘to play and to struggle’. If you want to do something, you work with passion, with commitment, you fight for it – and there is no other way. That made me who I am; I don’t know another way to do it. Maestro Abreu has really been like a father to me. In 1999 I lost my own father, and he was very supportive, he said you can count on me. So he has been a role model, a teacher, a parent; he was the one who gave me the opportunity to go into the conducting world. He told me some very beautiful words, he said, ‘some conductors are born to do it, and I think you could do this and I want to help, to show you the path’. He has been my only teacher.

Who else have been your great inspirations?
I would say: Barenboim, Haitink, Abbado, Rattle, Maazel. And Dudamel! I took a masterclass with Haitink in Lucerne and it was my first time working with a big maestro in this way – we worked on Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, Bruckner 4 and Brahms 4. With Barenboim, I have watched him rehearse a lot – which is a big deal, I have learned so much; any rehearsal of his is like a masterclass! – but he wasn’t actually watching me conduct. Haitink was there, saying specifically: ‘do this, do that’. It was a really very nice experience, a nice moment. Afterwards he said: ‘you are a conductor, you need to spread your wings, you can have a career.’ Which is amazing – to hear that from him!

On the subject of spreading your wings – you’ve been Principal Horn in the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra for a long time. Will you be able to keep that up, now that your conducting career is taking off so dramatically?
That orchestra is my family, we all grew up together, so I thought I was going to do it, but I don’t know how it will work now because I have so much conducting going on, and that is definitely my main focus. It’s my whole world. I feel complete, conducting. The orchestra is wonderful, but I always felt there was something missing.

Do you think your long experience with the Simon Bolivar Symphony has made you a better conductor, though?
Oh, that’s for sure! We have so many hours of rehearsal, we have seen so many great conductors  – and some not so great ones – and to be in the orchestra you have to be aware of so many things, so you learn a lot about what makes good conducting! The most important thing is that we are all aiming for the same thing, in the same way. The conductor really has to engage with the orchestra: it’s not about ruling it in your own way.

Is there any particular repertoire with which you feel most comfortable?
I love to conduct Shostakovich, Mahler, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Bartok. I feel very comfortable with Strauss, Dvorak.. I don’t know, there are so many things I love and at the moment I feel comfortable with all the repertoire I’ve worked out. But I’m also trying to get into more contemporary music.

Your schedule sounds pretty jam-packed. Do you manage to find much time for a life outside music?
Music is a huge part of my life, of course, but I also like watching movies, reading books, going to museums. I love to be with my family, not only my blood family but my orchestral family; we are always just joking around. I love football. I mean I suck at playing it, but I follow the Spanish & UK Premier League. With the guys in the orchestra we get together to watch and we yell at each other because we all support different teams. I find that very relaxing! Also baseball in Venezuela is huge, so I really love that I am a big fan of my hometown team “Caribes de Anzoategui”. The fans have an unbelievable passion. And I’m into lots of music besides classical – latin, pop, rock. I’m very open!

Where’s home?
I think my emotional home is where my loved ones are, now regarding my physical home, I am still based in Caracas, but I am coming more and more to Europe as there is so much traveling to be done. So maybe in the next future I will move. I still don’t know where – maybe to Berlin, I’m quite open to that!

What’s the best piece of advice you have ever received?
I have had a very similar piece of advice from many important people in my life, including Maestro Haitink and Maestro Maazel. But from a long time ago, Maestro Abreu always told me: be true to your heart, believe in your instincts and go for it. It’s highly recommended advice!

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