BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Even in the throes of crisis, Venezuela keeps churning out one export prized the world over: classical music maestros.
The latest addition to the country’s growing cadre of top-flight musical talent is Rafael Payare, who was named musical director of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra this week.
Payare, 37, has conducted at the world’s most prestigious concert halls and currently presides over the Ulster Orchestra in Northern Ireland. But he said his appointment to the helm of the San Diego Symphony was a huge surprise, coming just a month after he made his guest-conducting debut with the century-old ensemble.
“We only spent a week together but things immediately clicked and I could tell this is an orchestra that wants to expand both artistically and inside the community,” Payare said in a phone interview Wednesday from his home in Berlin.
He credits his selection in part to the pioneering path laid by another curly haired charismatic Venezuelan, Gustavo Dudamel, who revolutionized the normally stiff and European-centered world of classical music when in 2007 he was named musical director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the age of 28.
“Gustavo with his marvelous artistry did something that broke a barrier not just for Venezuelans but for all young conductors,” said Payare.
The two have been close friends since childhood, when they studied conducting together, and Payare for years played the French horn under Dudamel’s direction in the globe-trotting Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra.
That same orchestra has given rise to a slew of under-40 Venezuelan conductors who have recently found success abroad with long-term contracts and residencies at some of the world’s most prestigious orchestras. They include Diego Matheuz, who enjoyed a long run as principal conductor of La Fenice opera house in Venice; Christian Vasquez, who leads orchestras in Norway and Holland; and Domingo Hindoyan, who last month made his debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
The Simon Bolivar is the showcase ensemble for El Sistema, Venezuela’s world-famous network of youth orchestras. The program, celebrating its 43rd year, claims to currently connect 900,000 Venezuelan children to music, many of them from modest upbringings like Payare, the son of a schoolteacher and city employee in Puerto La Cruz.
Payare says he hopes to replicate in San Diego El Sistema’s mission of “social action through music,” concentrating on the area’s Latino community, which traditionally hasn’t had as much exposure to Beethoven or Mozart.
He’s likely to find a receptive home for experimentation: Last month the symphony teamed up with musicians from Mexico for a border concert in which dozens of percussionists played on either side of a mesh-wire fence separating Tijuana from San Diego in a symbolic jab at President Trump’s pledge to build a wall separating the two countries.
“I’m sure Rafael is proud not only for himself but also for our institution,” said Ronnie Morales, one of El Sistema’s top managers.
While El Sistema’s education model has been exported to 60 countries, its once-sterling reputation has taken a hit of late over its cozy ties to Venezuela’s increasingly authoritarian government and questions about its teaching methods that were raised in a 2014 book called “El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth.”
Payare says he’s heartbroken by his country’s unraveling and every day speaks to family and friends who tell of hardships wrought by four-digit inflation and widespread food and medicine shortages.
But he doesn’t believe criticism of El Sistema, which is generously funded by Venezuela’s socialist government, is fair. And unlike Dudamel, who last year ended a long silence and blasted President Nicolas Maduro over his crackdown on anti-government protesters, he hopes that even with a higher profile he can somehow stay above the fray of the country’s polarizing politics.
“El Sistema worked with all kinds of governments for 43 years and there are still people fighting for its future,” said Payare, who last conducted the El Sistema’s Simon Bolivar orchestra in 2016 and plans to do so again in April. “But if it didn’t exist, I maybe wouldn’t have begun studying music and discovered the passion of my life. It would be unfair for others not to have that same opportunity
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Associated Press Writer Fabiola Sanchez contributed to this report from Caracas, Venezuela.
Eds: This story has been corrected to note Payare played french horn, not trumpet, and that Matheuz is no longer at La Fenice.