Ulster Orchestra conducter Rafael Payare on being struck by the classical bug
Venezuelan maestro Rafael Payare has been chief conductor of the Ulster Orchestra for over a year now. With the orchestra's new season under way, he talks to Brian Campbell about arts cuts, taking classical music to regional venues and his plans to go sightseeing on the north coast
RAFAEL Payare has been chief conductor of the Ulster Orchestra (UO) in Belfast for over a year now, but he’s still getting to know the city.
The orchestra’s new eye-catching promotional photographs show Venezuelan Payare and his troupe at such landmarks as Titanic Belfast, Cave Hill, in the Cathedral Quarter and under the Harland & Wolff cranes, yet Payare admits he’s been so busy that he’s hardly had any time to explore Belfast and the rest of the north.
“It’s quite sad because I’ve been here a year and I haven’t had the chance to get to know the city well and I really want to do that,” he says, speaking to Weekend in the Ulster Hall last week.
"And then I’ve heard that the Giant’s Causeway and Bushmills Distillery are fantastic, so I want to get to do those kind of things too.”
Payare (35) has been a popular figure since taking over the baton in Belfast.
Having conducted Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto at the Ulster Hall just over a week ago, with guest pianist Vikingur Olafsson, Payare will be getting to see a bit more of Northern Ireland when he and the orchestra play Omagh and Lisburn in November.
“I think it’s important to do things outside Belfast,” he says.
“Northern Ireland is very lucky to have this wonderful orchestra, so I think that we should go everywhere. We’re trying to do more and more and to do outreach programmes and get into communities. It should be for everybody.”
There will also be Christmas concerts in Ballymena, Strabane, Bangor and a New Year 'Viennese Classics’ concert in Derry on January 10.
Payare is keen to get young people to take an interest in classical music. This is a man who is a product of Venezuela's famed El Sistema music programme, a publicly funded scheme offering musical education to disadvantaged children.
“If it wasn’t for El Sistema, I wouldn’t be a musician. The premise is that you take music everywhere,” he explains.
"You get taught and get to play in an orchestra for free. I started when I was 14 and I’m the person I am because of that. Before that, I thought I would be an engineer.”
He says popular concerts put on by the UO such as `Your Favourite Rodgers & Hammerstein’ and `Your Favourite John Williams Movie Themes’ can only help to engage younger music fans.
”If you think of our John Williams concert, you can say to people `Do you like Star Wars? Do you like the music? That’s played by an orchestra’. It’s important to get more people to come along.
”The beautiful thing about music is that it can just get to you and you react to it; it doesn’t matter what religion or race you are or how old or how young you are, the music just gets to you. It’s universal.”
Perhaps one of the most popular UO seasonal fixtures is the family friendly Snowman concert in early December, based around the orchestra performing the Howard Blake score to the classic 30-minute festive film.
“I’ve never been here for one of those. I’ve heard that the place is full of kids, so that’s wonderful,” says Payare, whose upcoming schedule includes trips to Venezuela, Spain and Switzerland.
“You just never know who’s in the audience; these kids could become conductors or violinists. It’s important that the orchestra shows them that it’s not 'classical music’ – it’s just music.”
The current UO season (which runs until May), sees a continuation of the Beethoven and Tchaikovsky cycle, while other highlights include Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, Messiah at Christmas, Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto and appearances from soprano Ailish Tynan and tenor Noah Stewart.
Asked if he had any particular tips for concerts that people should check out, Payare laughs and says, “They should come to everything!”
Having started out at the Simon Bolivar Orchestra in Venezuala, the conductor has also appeared with the Vienna Philharmonic, Munich Philharmonic, London Symphony and the Chicago Symphony in the Past few years.
He says he couldn’t turn down the invitation to be the UO’s chief conductor after first visiting Belfast as a guest conductor in 2013.
“The connection with the orchestra was immediate. Then after the concert we had dinner and everyone was happy and the chief executive of the orchestra said to me, `Would you like to come back?’ and I said `Yeah, of course’. Then a couple of days later my agent told me, `They really want you’ and I said, `Yeah, OK. Why not?’”
Payare’s wife is a soloist, so both of them are used to travelling the world by now.
“We have an apartment in Caracas and one in New York. If you ask me now where I’m based, I say 'The Europa hotel’.”
So did he have any preconceptions of Belfast before he arrived?
“Of course I heard news about the problems here in the past, but I try not to have preconceptions of anywhere I go. Every week I go to a different place, so I don’t have expectations and I just want to experience everything and get to know a city.”
He says he was immediately impressed by the UO’s talents. “They have such quality and this ability to be able to play music really fast; they arrive into the rehearsal so well prepared. You get to the second reading and it’s like you’ve done five rehearsals already.”
While his term at the orchestra is for three years, Payare says he has no plans to leave in the near future.
“We’re already trying to see if we can get an extension, but I can’t say anything more than that. We have a very good relationship and we’re growing and developing together, so for me there’s no rush to go anywhere else.”
He admits that it was “scary” last year when it emerged that funding cuts threatened the orchestra’s very existence. “I know it has been difficult and there’s a team in place to fight against all that. Even though it has been a troubled time, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” he says.
“Of course it was a scary time because the orchestra didn’t know if they’d survive the year and they did and they keep developing and getting more people coming to concerts.
“It was nice to see people standing up and showing their support. We want to develop and put on exciting concerts, so getting any sort of cut is like a hammer in the head. On social media you could see how much support there was. You got the sense that people were saying, 'This is OUR orchestra, why would we let it die?’”
Payare says that conducting gives him a “fantastic feeling”. “When you have a nice chemistry with an orchestra, you can do things during a concert that you didn’t even rehearse. It’s a wonderful experience. It’s almost like a virus is in you – a wonderful virus – and you can’t stop.”
:: For all Ulster Orchestra concerts, see UlsterOrchestra.com or call 028 9033 4455. Rafael Payare’s next two appearances as conductor will be at the Strule Arts Centre in Omagh on November 18 and at the Island Arts Centre in Lisburn on November 19.