Beat Of The New: Rafael Payare Nabs San Diego Baton

Rafael Payare and the San Diego Symphony take their bows after Payare’s inaugural concerts as music director.
(Photo by Richard S. Ginell)
By Richard S. Ginell

SAN DIEGO – So this is how the San Diego Symphony plans to vault itself into the front ranks of California orchestras. They have staked part of their immediate future upon a vigorous, still-young Venezuelan conductor with a helmet of dark curly hair and an affinity for the gargantuan symphonies of Gustav Mahler.

No, the SDSO didn’t somehow lure Gustavo Dudamel away from the Los Angeles Philharmonic. They landed their own Venezuelan, Rafael Payare, 39, as their new music director – and from the look and sound of things on opening weekend at Copley Symphony Hall, they are off to a flying start.

Rafael Payare has an affinity for new music and Gustav Mahler.
(Henry Fair)

Besides their heritage and their hair, other connections between Payare and Dudamel can be found. Dudamel’s rocket-like journey to fame began when he won the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in Bamberg with a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 – the same work with which Payare inaugurated his term at the SDSO Sunday afternoon (Oct. 6). Payare also has an affinity for the new; he made a point of prefacing Mahler on his first concert as music director with a full-blown piece of contemporary music, not merely a brief, token curtain-raiser – Mason Bates’ 2012 electro-acoustic “energy symphony,” Alternative Energy. And Payare, too, is a product of El Sistema, the Venezuelan music education and social program.

There are differences, though, and one of them figured in the pre-concert hoopla. Payare’s own instrument is the French horn (Dudamel’s is the violin), and the International Horn Society just happened to be holding its 29th Southwest Horn Convention in San Diego that weekend. So the convention horned in on the proceedings with a “flash mob” of 70 or more horn players (plus a tuba) forming a single-file semi-circle way up in the balcony of Copley Hall, mellifluously intoning a chorale from Hansel and Gretel ten minutes before the concert began. Nice touch.

Another difference is that of demeanor. Gustavo seems to radiate joy and a sunny exuberance when he conducts. Payare by contrast never smiled once; he comes off as more serious and inward, even when his physical motions are at their most extravagant. We could sense that because the SDSO installed video screens high above both sides of the stage since the last time I was there in March, offering close-ups and wide shots of the performers. The Copley was once a movie theater, and apparently it has become one again.

Still another difference is the situation in which Payare finds himself in San Diego. Whereas Dudamel inherited a top-flight orchestra from Esa-Pekka Salonen in Los Angeles and was charged with maintaining its quality and progressive direction, Payare is trying to elevate an ensemble with a checkered past of near-death experiences from fiscal disruptions. Sunday’s concert indicated that Payare is making an impact already, a big one.

Mason Bates’  “Alternative Energy,” receives a performance minus the presence of the composer. (Scott Suchman)

A good way to start was with the orchestral pizzazz, folk-like fiddle tunes, hammering industrial sounds, and wild electronic responses of Bates’ Alternative Energy, which traces the past, present, and future of environmental destruction through advancing energy technology. The piece has already caught on, with repeat performances and recordings by the Chicago and San Francisco Symphonies – and Payare managed to get the San Diegans on its track, picking up the feel of its string slides and jazzy syncopations. Bates couldn’t be there as usual to lend a hand, so another unnamed performer sat in back of the orchestra with a laptop, summoning forth the overwhelming whooshing sounds of a sampled particle collider.

Was the Adagietto a love letter to Alma Mahler? (Wiki)

As for the Mahler 5, Payare takes a more demonic view than Dudamel, with greater intensity and just as much bustling energy. He was at his most furiously compelling in the second movement, making it whoop and seethe. There are two competing viewpoints of the Adagietto that can literally double the length of the movement in extreme cases. Is it a love song to Alma, as Mahler’s friend and champion Willem Mengelberg maintained? Or is it an elegy for tragic events or a decaying society, as Leonard Bernstein’s performance during the funeral for Robert Kennedy and its use in the film Death In Venice suggested? With his relatively fast tempo, the rhetoric loaded with gusts of passion, Payare’s conception comes down on the side of a love song – and he brought it off winningly.

It may be trite to say it, but there were times when I thought I was hearing a different orchestra than the one that played Mahler 4 in March under Edo de Waart, the new principal guest conductor. The listed SDSO personnel is largely the same as it was in March, just a bare handful of changes, but their ensemble playing was vastly improved – particularly the horns, wouldn’t you know it. Only in the fifth movement did the orchestra seem to tire just a bit and reveal some stray threads – the way Payare was working them into a frenzy, no wonder. Even the hall sounded better Sunday afternoon – brighter, more detailed and balanced, though that could have been a result of where I was seated, more toward the center of the balcony than last time.

However you add things up, it was an electrifying opening for the Payare era in San Diego. Now they just have to keep this intensity burning.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.