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San Diego Symphony Leaps Forward With Rafael Payare

October 8, 2019

San Diego Symphony

Founded in 1910, the San Diego Symphony actually predates its rivals in Los Angeles and San Francisco — which is interesting to know, because the ensemble has had a tougher time trying to survive over the decades. There have been some fiscal disruptions in the past that nearly deep-sixed the ensemble for good, although it appears to be on solid footing now. Still, the SDSO has always been the underachieving neighbor to the south — and now they’re trying to do something about that. The nation’s eighth-largest city deserves it.

Rafael Payare — young (39), Venezuelan, a serious-looking yet dynamic presence on the podium — was hired as the new San Diego Symphony music director, and an old friend of San Francisco, Edo de Waart, concurrently became its first principal guest conductor. Payare made his official debut over the past weekend (I caught the Sunday afternoon performance Oct. 6) — and already, the orchestra sounds like it is ready to respond con brio.

The SDSO plays in Copley Symphony Hall, a 2,248-seat, converted, 1929-vintage movie theater that is now enclosed within a massive 34-story building (go up several stories and you’re in part of the Marriott Vacation Club Pulse hotel). It’s doesn’t have flattering acoustics, but it’s not horrible either; there is enough reverberation to carry a full symphony orchestra and it can be quite acceptable toward the middle of the balcony. Video screens now flank the stage, projecting cinematic close-ups and long shots of the performers in slightly washed-out color (which is actually less distracting than higher-resolution images would be).

The acoustics certainly got a workout Sunday afternoon. Hearing a solemn, Wagnerian-sounding chorale to my rear 10 minutes before the concert, I turned around and saw more than 70 horn players, plus a tuba, from the Southwest Horn Convention taking place in San Diego that weekend. They formed a semicircle high in the balcony, intoning an excerpt from the opera Hansel and Gretel. That served as a thoughtful, welcome-to-town fanfare for Payare, reminding us that his main instrument happens to be the French horn.

Then Payare entered the room, bringing with him a substantial piece of contemporary music, Mason Bates’s ratcheting, bonging, quasi-folksy, ultimately dystopian vision of four environments separated by spans of a hundred years, Alternative Energy. Bates’s gleeful fusion of laptop electronics and imaginative orchestrations communicates, and Payare was able to get his new orchestra to move convincingly with the piece’s grooves, whether jazzy syncopations or thumping four-on-the-floor disco. Also, it turns out that the piece can be performed without the presence of the composer and his laptop, for someone else generated jolts of electronics from a MacBook quite capably at the back of the orchestra.

No doubt there will be comparisons between Payare and his Venezuelan compatriot 120 miles to the north, Gustavo Dudamel, as SDSO took on the very piece that propelled Dudamel onto the world’s stages, Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. There are similarities: the bursts of energy written into the score blast out of the chute with both conductors, and Payare’s most extroverted physical motions resemble those of a younger Dudamel before he calmed down in recent years. Yet Payare the serious citizen brings out the truly neurotic element in Mahler that seems to elude Dudamel, particularly in a fiercely conducted and played second movement. The Adagietto was passionate and somewhat swift in tempo, consistent with this being a love letter as opposed to an elegy. I was astonished by how improved the San Diegans’ playing was from when I heard them in Mahler Four back in March. Same orchestra personnel with very few changes, but now putting forth greater intensity and more-tightly-knit ensemble work.

Although one might lament the absence of last season’s forward-thinking Hearing The Future festival this winter in favor of a Beethoven 250th year sequence — which everyone on the planet is doing in 2019–2020 — it looks like the Payare hire, plus de Waart as a counterbalancing elder statesman, is going to invigorate this orchestra into the next decade.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, Musical America.com, Classical Voice North America, and American Record Guide.  He has also contributed to Gramophone and The Strad, among many other publications. In another lifetime, he was chief music critic of the Los Angeles Daily News.