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He's got rock star looks and a very famous cellist wife ... meet the conductor about to make a baton charge on the Ulster Orchestra

New chief conductor Rafael Payare tells Una Brankin about his great relationship with the musicians and his marriage to Alisa Weilerstein

In command: Rafael Payare with baton in hand
In command: Rafael Payare with baton in hand
Making music: Rafael Payare, new chief conductor of the Ulster Orchestra
Rafael Payare's wife, cellist Alisa Weilerstein

He looks more like rock star than a conductor but when you see him in action in front of an orchestra, there's no doubting his devotion to classical music. A cross between Phil Lynott and Tom Hulce as Mozart in the Oscar-winning Amadeus, he's the new chief conductor of the Ulster Orchestra and they're lucky to have him.

Venezuelan Rafael Payare (34) is hot property on the international classical music circuit, as is his wife, renowned cellist Alisa Weilerstein (32). The American fell for Rafael when he was playing French horn with the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, and they married last summer in two ceremonies with Jewish elements, the first at the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in New York, and the other at a non-denominational service in Venezuela at Ranchos de Chana on Isla de Margarita.

Work commitments prevented Alisa attending Rafael's Grand Opening Concert of the new season the Ulster Orchestra last Friday, but he agrees that the absences help keep the romance alive.

"She's very busy – we're always travelling," he explains in Latino-flavoured English.

"Before there would be huge delays on planes in Venezuela when she was coming over from abroad but it has got easier to catch up with each other. It's always nice to meet up in nice places and eat nice food.

I am really open and would like to try it all in Northern Ireland! And I am really looking forward to experiencing your beautiful and dramatic nature and landscape."

The couple share a house in Caracas and an apartment in Berlin. They're from different backgrounds; Bostonian Alisa is the daughter of a violinist and a pianist, both in musical academic faculties, while Rafael's parents were non-musical – his late father was a cartographer for the City of Puerto la Cruz, and his mother is a retired primary school teacher. Rafael received his music degree after studying conducting with economist and musician Jose Antonio Abreu, the founder of the El Sistema method of teaching music to the poorest children in Venezuela. Alisa is a graduate of the Young Artist Program at the Cleveland Institute of Music and of Columbia University, where she studied history.

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She is just as passionate about music as Rafael, who agrees her style of playing is on a par with the legendary Jacqueline du Pre, who died at 42 from Multiple Sclerosis. (Incidentally, Alisa has her own health issue; she suffers from Type-1 diabetes, which requires insulin injections for life.)

"I have conducted Alisa many times and besides the obvious, the strongest similarities with Jacqueline du Pre would be their passion and commitment when they are performing," says Rafael. "Of course I only have seen videos and listened to recordings of Jacqueline du Pre and sadly never had the opportunity to experience a live performance by her, but you could see with both of them how serious and deeply emotionally involved with the music they play and that is really inspiring."

Compared to Alisa, who started playing the cello at four, Rafael came to music quite late, at 13, when he and his brother Joel joined the publicly funded El Sistema project for young people from all backgrounds, including those unable to afford an instrument. Joel dropped out of studying the bassoon to go into mechanical engineering – "he was too lazy to continue," according to his brother, who decided to set up his own brass quintet. When the project founder Abreu saw him conducting it one day, at 19, he declared to his student's delight, "I think you have what it takes".

He went on to become principal horn player in the Simon Bolivar Orchestra and has since emerged as one of the most exciting conductors of his generation. Described by the Oslo Philharmonic as "one of those conductors you just have to witness", Rafael has worked with the Rotterdam Philharmonic, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse, Oslo Philharmonic, Gothenburg Symphony, Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo, Cincinnati Symphony and the Los Angeles and Royal Stockholm Philharmonic orchestras.

He made his spectacular UK debut with the Ulster Orchestra in October 2013, conducting some spellbinding Ravel and Shostakovich, and was immediately offered the position of chief conductor, a post he will take over from the 2014-15 season for an initial period of three years. In this he will be replacing the outgoing principal conductor, American JoAnn Falletta, the first woman to have held the position in the orchestra.

"When I came to Belfast last year to conduct the Ulster Orchestra, I had no idea the performance would turn out to be a type of audition," he recalls. "I did not realise they were looking for a chief conductor. But the first time we played together, it was clear to me that the energy generated was really special and from then on I knew that, together, we could create something great through a shared vision and understanding."

It's an appointment, however, that has come at a shaky time for the Ulster Orchestra, which is facing cuts and restructuring after the Arts Council of Northern Ireland claimed the orchestra's relative inflexibility was a problem in terms of budgetary issues.

As his El Sistema musical philosophy is based on the idea that music bridges economic and political divides, it's hoped that Rafael will now be an ideal figurehead for the orchestra's education work.

"I am really thrilled and looking forward to starting this journey," he says. "In terms of cuts and funding, it's a worldwide problem and the Ulster Orchestra has a fantastic team that will take care of that situation.

"The most important thing for me is the artistic development and achievement because the art itself is food for the soul. The rest is noise."

He's particularly looking forward to working with young people in the the exciting Dark Hedges project with the Ulster Youth Orchestra in April next year, and to continuing the Paper Orchestra project in north and west Belfast, which he became involved with in March and which will feature as part of the Children's Festival of Music in June 2015.

"Young people become the musicians and the audiences of tomorrow," he enthuses. "So I feel a great sense of personal pride to have the opportunity to work with your children and young people during this coming season and beyond."

So do children figure in his personal ambitions?

"What I do is part of who I am and I really love conducting, so I would like to keep doing it for a very long, long, long time and at the same time start my family and grow old with Alisa."

He adds: " I learned through the El Sistema belief 'to play and to struggle' – in other words, to achieve anything you must tackle it with passion and commitment. The best advice I was ever given was to follow my heart and be true to it, and that's what I will do."

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