Interview: Rafael Payare

We catch up with Venezuelan hot-shot Rafael Payare, recently appointed Chief Conductor of the Ulster Orchestra, who tells us why everyone ought to come to his LSO debut concert on Thursday 9 October

Imagine I don't know a lot about classical music. How would you describe what a conductor does?

Well, first let's say that of course the conductor is not the one that produces the sound, because actually only the musicians in the orchestra are producing any sound. But the conductor, in a way, is a kind of a moderator, a communicator between the orchestra who is trying to unite everyone together in the same way. Because, as you know, music is like poetry: you can read every line in a lot of different ways. When reading a poem, you could have it all done very quickly, or you could make little pauses here and there, and the effect depends on how you read it. That's what we call interpretation – the particular way you do it. So, the conductor's job is to unite everyone in the same version for saying something. He or she communicates with the orchestra in trying to decide a little bit what the musical shape itself should be, so the audience can enjoy the final result.

But it's not like a football director, it's completely different of course – the footballers are the ones that are playing and they will score the goals and everything, and the director is on the side lines and has control only over the strategy of attack. In music it's not like that because you are there in the moment, and you just try to, let's say, have a journey with the musicians. Some orchestras may have a hundred musicians, and it's just you trying to get everybody in the same train, heading toward the same goal.

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... let's say that that is a kind of very important skill that you need to have.

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 in almost instantly, without saying anything. 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 and everything with everybody else. But it was he who showed me the path, and he gave me the opportunity to conduct an orchestra. 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 sometimes 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 for me things fell into place at the beginning, and 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, he was a bassoon player – he is not playing anymore – but back then he was all the time listening to classical music in his room, and there was a sound that caught my attention. And then months, or 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, when they play the Marseillaise in the overture. 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.

Can you tell me a bit about your first gig? What was the first programme you conducted?

Let me see... my first programme actually was Tchaikovksy's Second Symphony and it was with the Romeo and Juliet Overture by Tchaikovsky as well. And there was something else... ah! of course: Rimsky-Korsakov’s great Russian Easter Overture. Yes, that was the first full programme that I had as a conductor.

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!

Well that would certainly convince me! Valery Gergiev, the LSO’s Principal Conductor, once told the story of his first concert as a conductor – apparently early on in the performance he threw the baton right into the air, which was probably quite embarrassing! Do you have any, any tales like that; 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!

That's good. Can I ask you, on the day of a concert, how you prepare yourself? Do you have any sort of rituals that you observe?

Well, usually if I can take a nap in the afternoon, that would be good. But I don't have anything specific that I need to do. I just go – I don't like to be too early, that's for sure. I just go there, get dressed and go on stage.

Tell us about your batons. Do you have particular preferences with length, shape, material, weight, anything like that?

I use one that, I think is made of fibreglass or something, because the most important thing is that it's not too heavy. Because you can think it doesn’t weigh that much at all, and then you get a baton that is even, say, two or three grams heavier and it completely puts your arm off. It’s like a hammer with the downbeat.

Actually there's something very strange that happened to me in Caracas last year. This is a funny story. It was the first concert of the anniversary of El Sistema, and the concert was at 6pm or something. Now, Caracas is very well known for the traffic jams, and the rush hour starts at 4pm. But from the place that I live to Caracas, there's no rush hour because it's against the rush hour itself. So I went and I actually left a lot of time. I wanted to go two hours early just to have coffee with some friends before the thing and so on. But to cut a long story short, I was caught in the worst traffic jam, because that day the police bought new cars and they made a parade and they collapsed the whole city. So they sent a motor-cycle to go and find me in the traffic jam – I mean, they sent two people on the motorcycle – one to take my car, and one to take me on the motor-cycle to the hall. In the end the concert started one hour late. I'm telling you this, because in that whole crazy thing – going from the car, through the traffic jam, into the hall – my baton got lost. So in the end, they gave me another baton – I was conducting Mahler 5. The baton was heavier, and at the end of the concert my arm was completely gone - wow! And that's when I realised that it really does make a huge difference!

Now, to change topic somewhat just before we finish what’s the last piece of music you listened to?

Well, the music on my phone is only classical. So what I often actually do is I just throw on the radio, whatever station it is, and I just roll with whatever is there. It doesn't have to be anything specific.

And what about books – what was the last book you read?

The last book I read… that’s even boring, because it was Brahms biography by Jan Swafford, so it was work-related I’m afraid. Sorry!

What about movies? The last one that I saw was just last week. 'The Planet of the Apes'...

Did you like it?

Yes, it's good! Also, this might be a little embarrassing but I really like Harry Potter! I’ve seen all of those films, and read all the books…

That’s ok, I like them too…

Good, we are ok then. It's not embarrassing for us!

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.

Do you have any favourite music jokes?

Oh, I don't know! I like jokes but I'm a terrible stand-up. And there are so many of them I cannot say! My wife is a great joke teller. But I don't have any one favourite. I have heard a few though, because I used to play horn in the Orchestra, and there are a lot of horn-based jokes, and now that I'm conductor, it’s even worse…

If you weren’t a professional musician, what do you think you would do for a living?

I think I might be an engineer, but one who is that is really into music! So I would have my job in engineering, and be a very annoying groupie and go to classical concerts all the time.

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.

We’re very much looking forward to it too! Don’t miss Rafael Payare and pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja perform with the LSO on Thursday 9 October. Full concert details are here.