Maestro On The Ascent, Rafael Payare Displays Wide Command Of Style

Conductor Rafael Payare and his once-overlooked San Diego Symphony crew are being given equal billing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony at the upcoming California Festival in November. (Photos courtesy of Gerard Collett and San Diego Symphony)

LOS ANGELES – Rafael Payare may not be quite the classical celebrity that his friend, countryman, and sponsor Gustavo Dudamel is, but he’s coming up fast.

Big things have been happening in San Diego since Payare took over the San Diego Symphony top job four years ago: a snazzy new outdoor waterfront concert facility, the Rady Shell at Jacobs Park; a long-needed renovation of the orchestra’s indoor home, Copley Symphony Hall, which is due to reopen this fall; an excellent digital-only recording of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11. Payare added the Montreal Symphony to his collection of music directorships this season, and already this team, too, is making an impression on recordings with a large-scale work, Mahler’s Symphony No. 5.

Payare conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic in April and the San Francisco Symphony in May.

This spring, Payare is showing the rest of California what he can do with the state’s two leading orchestras, Dudamel’s Los Angeles Philharmonic in April and Esa-Pekka Salonen’s San Francisco Symphony in May. For the first time in my memory, Payare and his once-overlooked San Diego crew are being given equal billing with the L.A. and S.F. ensembles in the new statewide California Festival this November.

At Walt Disney Concert Hall on April 16, the Venezuelan-born conductor turned in a program that electrified a much-played slice of basic repertoire, offered some non-operatic (albeit vocal) Wagner, and unearthed a little-known early piece by William Grant Still, sometimes called the dean of Black American composers.

Still’s Darker America was premiered by Eugene Goossens in New York’s Aeolian Hall in 1926, two years after it was written. But like almost all of his voluminous output of some 290 known titles, it vanished from the stage for decades. The Still that we hear in his Afro-American Symphony, to this day his the most-often-played work, is already fully formed in this piece — European influences heavily infiltrated, yet not quite dominated, by jazz and the blues.

It seems to me the 10-minute Darker America is Still’s comment on racism in America, which he nevertheless managed to overcome repeatedly in a career of firsts for a Black classical composer/conductor. Here, it’s as if the work’s musical argument is never allowed to get on its way. Something is always blocking its path, starting with a big string tune that is suddenly interrupted by quizzical comments from other sections of the orchestra. Later on, some of the brass interjections seem downright hostile.

Dorothea Röschmann: ‘Wesendonck Lieder’ as full-blown music drama. (Harald Hoffmann for Sony Entertainment)

Soprano Dorothea Röschmann turned Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder into full-blown music drama with a huge vocal dynamic range that flooded Disney Hall with sound, easily riding above Payare’s driven conducting of the down-sized LA Phil. There is some justification for that. While Wagner set these poems by his married alleged lover and muse Mathilde Wesendonck for just voice and piano (orchestrating only “Träume” later), two of the songs have the seeds of the Love Music and Act III prelude in Tristan und Isolde already sprouting, and another contains music from the already-composed Das Rheingold. The source of the orchestrations for the other four songs in this performance was not cited in the program book.

Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 struggles, consoles, inspires, and in the end, triumphs. Not every conductor can, or chooses to, make all of this happen in one performance, but when everything does come together, it can lift people up during times of trouble (I’ve felt this myself from personal experience). In this case, Payare concentrated on the struggles and the triumph, pounding home the tough rhythms of the first movement, sailing energetically across the middle movements, and urgently coaxing the orchestra through the finale.

It was an undeniably exciting performance, made even more so by watching Payare work, bobbing and weaving all over the podium. His extroverted style of conducting has been often equated to that of Dudamel, who is a year younger, but that no longer applies, for Dudamel has calmed down considerably since his 20s while Payare remains a physical dynamo at 43. Perhaps restraint in motion will come later.

(A version of this review appeared at San Francisco Classical Voice.)