SEPTEMBER 2014: Breaking the Mould - Latinolife Interviews Rafael PayareSEPTEMBER 2014: Breaking the Mould - Latinolife Interviews Rafael Payare
A black conductor who compares his job to a football manager? Latinolife just had to find out more about the Venezuelan sensation taking the classical music world by storm.
In the classical music world, still a predominantly wealthy, white, western environment, few would expect a world-class black conductor to come from South America, not usually known for its racial and class equality. But anyone who knows about the transformative impact of Venezuela’s musical education system ‘El Sistema’, now copied all over the world, would not be surprised.
The system watches over Venezuela's 125 youth orchestras. Some 370,000 children are part of this remarkable set up, with an estimated 90% coming from working-class backgrounds.
First came Gustavo Dudamel, who emerged from El Sistema to become one of the world’s most exciting conductors, currently at The Los Angeles Philarmonic. Now it’s Rafael Payare who at 34 is conquering the industry, described by the Oslo Philharmonic as 'one of those conductors you just have to witness.'
For starters, you don’t find many conductors talking about football, less still conjuring up images of a football manager running on the pitch to play with his team. It is clear, as Payare muses, that he is not your average conductor whose taken the average route to his job:
“The conductor, is a communicator between the orchestra. Because, as you know, music is like poetry: you can read every line in a lot of different ways. So, the conductor’s job is to unite everyone in the same version for saying something. But I guess it’s not like a football manager – the footballers are the ones that are playing and they will score the goals and everything, and the manager is on the side lines and has control only over the strategy of attack. In music you are there in the moment, and you just try to, let’s say, have a journey with the musicians. “
And what, do you think, are the skills required to be a great conductor? What about sort of personality do you need to be?
Well, to be a great conductor I don’t know! But to be a good conductor I think the most important skill that you need to have absolutely is the ability to hear everything. If you have a good enough ear to hear exactly what’s going on, it’s much better because that way you can enhance the sound of the orchestra by putting in some colours or adjusting the balance: putting some things down, bringing out some things a little bit better.
How did you yourself get into conducting? What was your route in?
I come from El Sistema in Venezuela and I have been a musician since I was about fourteen years old, so I started quite late actually. It was always in the back of my head to try to be a conductor, but I always thought that before that I need to be a very good in my instrument first of all, and maybe when my hair would be very white and I was going to be very, very old, then I would jump into conducting.
And then this fantastic Italian maestro came to Venezuela, his name was Giuseppi Sinopoli. He passed away back in 2001, unfortunately. But he came to Venezuela when I was part of the national youth orchestra, and this guy came speaking no Spanish, and just by his gesture and his energy he changed the orchestra’s sound almost instantly. And I thought ‘wow, I really would like to do that one day.’
And then of course maestro Abreu – the founder of El Sistema – gave me the opportunity to conduct and he showed me the path. I took conducting classes with him, and he sent me to another teacher to take all the other theoretical classes and analysis. It was actually a very, let’s say, natural path for me to take because I was the solo horn of the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, and I already was in charge of preparing the brass section and the wind section in rehearsal, for example if the orchestra was going to have a tour. Gustavo [Dudamel] the chief conductor, sometimes wasn’t in Venezuela, so somebody needed to prepare the orchestra before he arrived, and I was doing that. So it was very, very natural after that.
Is there a particular piece of music that changed things for you – one piece in particular that made you want to become a conductor?
Not really, all the music is fantastic. However, there was one piece of music that actually made me want a musician. But it was kind of strange, because I was already a teenager. My brother was playing already in the orchestra, and listening to classical music in his room, and there was a sound that caught my attention. And then maybe a year later, I found out that that was Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and the sound that actually caught my attention was the horn. And that was actually what drove me a little bit into music. So if there’s a piece that is really special for me, it’s that one.
And about your programme for the LSO Concert on 9 October – you are going to be doing Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto, and Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Can you tell us a bit about that repertoire, and what made you choose it?
Well, it’s very fantastical repertoire. Of course in music there’s always a story behind everything, but in this particular repertoire there are real stories to be told. It’s almost a fairy tale for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, of course. I’m quite sure that your audience might know it because of the Fantasia movie that was made by Walt Disney – it sounds almost like it was especially made for that, which is not the case actually, but they put it in movie very nicely: you have the story about how the apprentice gets in trouble because he is trying to follow his mentor, and he gets into the magic too deeply, too quickly.
The Beethoven Piano Concerto is just a fantastic piece of music, and we are having the opportunity to work with Elisabeth Leonskaja, which is great – in London everybody knows her already, she has been coming here for a quite a long time. It will be a great pleasure for me to work with her. As for Scheherazade, as you know, it’s part of the tale of ‘One Thousand and One Nights’, in which Princess Scheherazade charms the sultan by telling him the most fantastic stories night after night, so that she doesn’t get beheaded. All in all, it’s going to be a programme which is very, very full of colours and full of stories.
If you had just a few seconds to convince me to come to the concert, what would you say?
That’s a tough one! Maybe the approach would be ‘Do you like stories and fairy tales?’ – Probably everybody likes that, of course – Yes? Well, then you most definitely should come to this concert because there’s going to be the story about The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, and it’s fantastically orchestrated and not very long, and there’s the story of Scheherazade which is going to be very vibrant. It’s going to be a concert with a lot of energy, and there’s always a story behind it. I assure you that you’re not going to get bored!
Do you have any funny stories from the podium, or embarrassing things that have happened to you while performing?
Well, actually this year something very strange happened to me. I was in Hamburg with Hamburg Symphony Orchestra, and we were playing at this beautiful hall. And I start the overture. It was Beethoven – Leonore Overture No 3. So I’m conducting the overture, I’m completely into the music, and somehow my eyes see something white on my arm. But I don’t pay attention. I finish the overture and then I realize my cufflink isn’t there anymore! And of course my full cuffs are unfolded and flapping about. And I was like ‘whoa! This is embarrassing! This is very strange!’ so I left the stage. But soon it was time for the soloist to come on, so I quickly tried to fix it with one of those laundry pins, just to be sure that I could keep conducting.
But then in the intermission a lady came, speaking German, which I don’t understand a word of, and she was demanding to speak with the conductor. ‘Are you the conductor? ‘I was like ‘yes… I’m sorry! I don’t speak German!’ and she gave me the cufflink!
So you got it back!
Yes I did! And it was good that I didn’t hurt her because I don’t know what happened…
She could have gotten a cufflink in the eye or something…
Yes it could have been very bad. But she was very nice and she was laughing and saying a bunch of things in German, which I didn’t understand, but she was laughing so I got that she wasn’t mad!
Now, imagine a fantasy dinner party and you can invite, five guests, alive or historical. How would you choose?
Wow, ok. First I would say… Da Vinci. Second… well, it would be great to have a conversation with Beethoven, but I don’t think that he was well behaved, so I would say Mozart. I think he would be a little more fun. Then, maybe Picasso. And Neruda, Pablo Neruda, the poet. And lastly, oh I can’t remember his name… Ah: Anthony Hopkins.
What’s your ideal day out in London? Do you have a favourite place to eat/drink?
I don’t know London that well actually, because every time that I come here, even when we have a short residency or something, there are a lot of things to do, so I never have time to properly explore. Of course we go to the museums, which are always is always fantastic, and have a beautiful walk by the river, which is also nice. But I actually looking forward to be exploring more and get to know London a little bit better. It’s a beautiful, beautiful city, as you know.
And you must be looking forward to making your debut with the LSO, of course…
Of course! I mean… it’s the LSO! It’s fantastic to be able to have this opportunity to make music together with them and I’m really looking forward to it.
Reprinted with the kind permission of the London Symphony Orchestra
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