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Rhinegold Publishing

Meet the Maestro: Rafael Payare

4:28, 11th March 2014

If you’re a curly-haired Venezuelan conductor emerging from El Sistema, there’s a big shadow to contend with, writes Toby Deller

There is a rude joke about conductors that turns on the contrasting position of horns on bulls and orchestras. As a horn player who has made it from the back to the front of the latter, Rafael Payare has turned the joke on its head.

Trained in Venezuela under El Sistema, Payare progressed to the principal horn chair in the Simón Bolívar orchestra, and was eventually taken on as a conducting student by Sistema’s founder, José Antonio Abreu.

‘I had it at the back of my head that I really wanted to be a conductor. But when I was quite young I was maybe naive and thought I was only going to be a conductor when I was very very old with my hair very very white – until this great Italian maestro (may he rest in peace) Giuseppe Sinopoli did a concert, I think with the National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. That changed my mind: this is what I want to get on and do with my life.’

Is it rare for a conductor to have started out on his instrument? ‘I want to believe not,’ he laughs, ‘but I really don’t know. Yes, there are more conductors who are, let’s say, piano players and some string players. But in the end that is not what makes you want to be a conductor or not. I think it’s something that you are just born with. If you want to be a conductor, it doesn’t matter the instrument you play – you study a lot and with good discipline, and hopefully you can make it. Or not.’

It seems more likely, now, that Payare can. Winning first prize at the 2012 Malko competition for young conductors was obviously something of a turning point – the contest was in May, he had tidied up his horn duties with the Simón Bolívars by July. ‘After that, it completely changed. So, good!’

As well as putting in the yards around Europe with orchestras as part of his Malko prize, he went on to spend time as a Dudamel fellow at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and has been invited to conduct at Lorin Maazel’s festival in Castleton and Penderecki’s 80th birthday celebrations in Warsaw. And now he has signed a three-year contract as chief conductor with the Ulster Orchestra, which moved quickly to offer him the job, to his evident surprise, after one concert in October last year. ‘I did of course want to have an orchestra on my own. But I have to say I thought it was going to come a little bit later.’

At that time, as CM reported in November, the UO was undergoing discussions about restructuring, with talk, under funding pressure from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, of introducing Sistema-style education projects as part of the review. Although Payare’s appointment was not announced until January this year, it might have been a clue as to the identity, or at least the nationality, of the coming appointment.

With his first-hand experience of it, Payare has often talked positively of Sistema in interviews, and sees the potential for it in Belfast. Other than that, at the top of his agenda is planning the orchestra’s repertoire. (He’s not saying much for the moment, although he does drop a hint that he might be looking at a composer cycle.) In the meantime, he’ll be visiting the UO again during March, and there are CBSO and LSO debuts later in the year too.

So, his experience with orchestras around the world continues (he has also been conducting the Symphony Orchestra of India, for instance), and all the while he’ll be drawing on his own time as a player. It has helped him, hasn’t it?
‘Oh yes, completely yes. Because playing in the orchestra, sitting there, you see so many things, so many hours, so many rehearsals, such different repertoire, so many different conductors. You are the musician and you have a feeling of when things are good and when things are not good, what you can do or what you shouldn’t do. So it’s really big school to be sitting in an orchestra, especially when you are aware that conducting is what you want to be doing for the rest of your life.’


  • 1980 Born in Puerto de la Cruz, Venezuela
  • 1994 Begins studying music at the Núcleo in Puerto de la Cruz, and joins the National Children’s Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela as a founder member
  • 2004 Begins conducting studies with José Antonio Abreu
  • 2005 Invited to play in Claudio Abbado’s Latin American Youth Orchestra
  • 2011 First selected for Bernard Haitink’s conducting masterclass in Lucerne
  • 2012 Wins Malko competition for young conductors
  • 2012 Invited to Tanglewood Music Center conducting fellowship programme and is selected as one of four Dudamel conducting fellows at the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the 2012/13 season
  • 2013 Makes first appearance with Ulster Orchestra in October
  • 2014 Ulster Orchestra announces his appointment as chief conductor, succeeding JoAnn Falletta, for three years from September 2014
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