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By Laurence Vittes | From the November-December 2022 issue of Strings magazine

Rafael Payare is beginning his first season as music director of the Montréal Symphony Orchestra (OSM) and his fourth as music director of the San Diego Symphony. So he keeps busy. His first release leading the MSO in a planned Mahler cycle has already been recorded in Montréal, and in San Diego, he and the orchestra opened a new venue, the Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, as it finishes a renovation of its home at Copley Hall, scheduled to open in 2023. 

OSM concertmaster Andrew Wan told me that the musicians “are ecstatic to bring a terrific new leader into the fold. Payare possesses the uncanny ability to galvanize us to not only play well with each other but for each other and, of course, for the music. He approaches everything with class, thoughtfulness, and incredible energy. It is an exciting time for us all.”

The San Diego Symphony is “hungry for achieving the next level,” CEO Martha Gilmer told me of the ensemble’s ambitions for more prominent stature within the classical music world. Their choice of Payare as music director is an indicator of their commitment to raising the orchestra’s profile. “They are incredibly talented musicians with a wonderful music director, two great venues, a dedicated public, and a city that has really embraced him.” 

I caught up with Payare to quiz him about his inspiration and his plans for the two ensembles.

It seems like you must always be studying at least a dozen scores at a time. How do you keep them organized?

I never stop studying. There’s always a score in my head. Pieces you come back to. Pieces you want to conduct. It’s a lot of fun. 

Do you use paper or tablets?

Paper, especially the ones I’ve already conducted. They have my markings and there’s always something related to bowings. That reminds me of a little advice Bernard Haitink gave me: Show up with bowings so you can contribute specific small bowings here or there, but for the most part use the concertmaster’s bowings. It’s a little diplomatic dance you must play. 


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Considering the work you put in at rehearsals, what is left to happen at the concerts except to play?

We react to what is actually happening at the moment. This keeps every performance bubbling and sparkling. Sometimes when we have the same repertoire two or three nights in a row and the first night was fantastic, we think, why make it fantastic on the second night in the same way? And when you have a relationship with an orchestra where you can make these changes, it’s like smelling truffles when it happens. It just happens, you savor it for a moment, and then it goes away and it’s wonderful. 

At Montréal, you are following in the footsteps of two masters of sound. How do you bring your own palette?

Both maestros Dutoit and Nagano worked with different sound concepts. When I make music, I think about the artists and music I have in front of me. An orchestra is always different, even day to day. The OSM has the very refined sound and pristine sense of light that works with French repertoire. And the hall is wonderful, really good, which also helps to enhance the sounds. 

What’s your vision for the San Diego Symphony?

We want the world to know the orchestra. It’s fantastic, they have passion, they are virtuosos committed to always seeking the highest levels. They are genuine and warm. We work hard in pursuit of the truth we see in the score. We sit together with Martha Gilmer and others looking not just for nice music but how to explore different sounds that the orchestra can develop. We have reviewed the orchestra’s repertoire for the past 25 years and are looking five seasons ahead. I remember a meeting with Martha in Berlin that began at 10:00 am—and we were still talking at 12:30 the next morning. 

When did it become clear that you wanted to make a career of conducting? 


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I was part of the Venezuelan Children’s Orchestra. We were on tour in Italy when Giuseppe Sinopoli came to conduct. At the first rehearsal, there were 170 kids, and we did Wagner’s Rienzi Overture and the last movement of Mahler’s First Symphony. We were 30 seconds into the Rienzi when the sound of the orchestra completely changed. Sinopoli didn’t speak Spanish, but his energy and his aura changed the sound of the orchestra. I thought, I would like to try that when my hair is all white. For the moment, I wanted to be the best horn player I could be. But he told me I had the qualities to be a conductor. 

How has playing the French horn informed your approach to conducting?

The horn is in the middle range and ties the woodwinds, brass, and strings together. You have to read seven clefs because of transpositions. You learn to control any kind of nervousness or anxiety, because when you let it get to you, the whole world knows. 

When you guest conduct, what’s it like guiding someone else’s vision of an orchestra and yet still hoping to tell stories in your own voice? 

When you work, you have the element of chemistry. It’s all about the trust you can create. If the orchestra wants to go for it, magic happens—not everything happens at the first visit. It’s like a relationship, and then it could grow or not, but when you have that chemistry . . . 

What kind of community work are you doing?

In San Diego, we want to create an El Sistema–based program. In Montréal, we are expanding our Music for Children program for kids 5–7 years old into north Montréal and making all the orchestral instruments available for the first time.