Conductor Rafael Payare Makes Splendid Debut on San Diego Symphony Podium

Percussion virtuoso Steven Schick had the San Diego Symphony marching to the beat of his drum Saturday (January 13) at the Jacobs Music Center. Or to be more accurate—to the pulse of his marimba, xylophone, vibraphone, glockenspiel, suspended cymbals, güiro, cowbell, maracas, crotales, drums and a dozen other percussion instruments he played with such astounding prowess in Roberto Sierra’s 1999 Percussion Concerto “Con madera, metal y cuero.”

Rafael Payare [photo (c) Bjorne Bertheussen]

Under the gifted baton of guest conductor Rafael Payare, Sierra’s turbulent but incessantly engaging work electrified the unusually large audience present for the first orchestral concert of the Symphony’s It’s About Time Festival that opened Thursday (January 11) with an all-percussion chamber concert at Bread and Salt. Festival Curator Schick could not have chosen a more impressive work for the occasion, nor a more accomplished soloist.

Sierra’s massive work is much more than a concerto for percussion, even though the vast array of the soloist’s instruments filled the entire front of the Copley Auditorium stage and the soloist was engaged most of the time. Following the precedent of Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, Sierra gave solo opportunities for various sections of the orchestra, with particular emphasis on the orchestra’s own busy percussion section and all of the sizzling brass choirs.

Although the composer has defined three movements for his concerto, he skillfully transitioned into each succeeding movement without a break. The opening, titled “with rhythm and edge,” struck me as an extended frenzied dance, while the “luminous” and calmer middle movement suggested Bartók’s trademark “night music” on steroids. Sierra’s idiom, his own brand of edgy, dissonant modernism that pushes the borders of tonality, includes a preference for Latin American meters, no doubt a reflection of his Puerto Rican roots.

Notable were Schick’s vivacious, athletic marimba and vibraphone solos in the opening movement and his searing drum cadenza in the final movement. Payare conducted the demanding score with assurance and verve, maintained exacting balances in its unrelentingly dense textures.

Payare also led a fiery account of Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 after intermission. The orchestra responded eagerly to his demand to treat the opening movement, an atypical Andante, as a noble yet visceral processional, supported by the strings’ bold, bright sonority and driven by an insistent timpani pulse. The sleek, witty Allegro moderato followed, buoyed by the violins’ precisely articulated volleys and effervescent, fluttery themes from the woodwinds, reminders of the composer’s first forays in neoclassicism.

Principal Clarinet Sheryl Renk floated her ardent, folksong like solos in the cool Adagio, which Payare gave a calm, pastoral air without losing Prokofiev’s wary edge. And the hushed orchestral shimmer at the close of this movement proved mysterious and sublime.

Allowing the Allegro giocoso to work its magic, Payare encouraged rich, eloquent solos from the cello section and incisive, rhythmic attacks from the violins. He executed the composer’s dynamic slight of hand at the finale—an unexpected diminuendo followed by an equally surprising orchestral forte—with elan.

Choosing Hector Berlioz’ “Roman Carnival” to open the concert gave a quick preview of the polished solo playing that would dominate the rest of the evening, including Andrea Overturf’s inviting English Horn solo at the opening and gleaming edge of the trumpets crowning every brilliant crescendo.

While this was Payare’s first visit to the San Diego Symphony podium, his striking combination of ease and authority struck me as a desirable combination of traits in a future Music Director.

This concert by the San Diego Symphony was presented on January 13, 2018, at the Jacobs Music Center in downtown San Diego. It was repeated as a matinee on January 14, 2018, in the same venue. The “It’s About Time Festival” continues through January 28, 2018.

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