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“It makes things a little bit easier if you think about it,” Rafael Payare said about the travel implications of his new position as music director of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. “Now instead of eight weeks in San Diego plus 35 in other cities, I will have my eight in San Diego and 14 weeks in Montreal.” To be clear: the Venezuelan conductor – also music director of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra – will be in Montreal for seven weeks in 2021-22 and will double his commitment in 2022-23. At which point, with any luck, COVID-19 will be either defeated or under control.
According to the contractual fine print he is “music director designate” in 2021-22, although the OSM marketing department has deemed this title to be meaningless to the general public. The point is that starting Sept. 9, when he signals the downbeat in Montreal’s Olympic Park, Payare is in charge.
Which raises many questions that only the coming seasons can answer. Payare’s repertoire preferences appear to be redoubtably mainstream. In this respect he differs from Charles Dutoit, who cultivated variety (how many of us remember the 1990s survey of Liszt symphonic poems?) within a context that recognized the Franco-Russian needs of the Decca label.
Nor is he quite like Kent Nagano, who toggled between a late-middle-age fascination for Austro-German classics and undisputed authority in 20th-century works by the likes of Leonard Bernstein and Olivier Messiaen.
Baroque music? “I cannot say that I am a specialist,” Payare cresponds when asked about the historical practice movement. It is interesting that a guest conductor, Paul McCreesh, takes a pair of Holy Week performances of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Nagano would never have ceded control of such a masterpiece. Perhaps the flaw is not fatal in a city that is amply served by early-music professionals.
Payare’s commitment to contemporary music is yet to be established. The only Canadian piece he conducts this season, in the opening program in the Maison symphonique, is Pierre Mercure’s safely Stravinskian Kaléidoscope of 1948. The lone score of later vintage involving his leadership is Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra of 1979. The four Canadian premieres are entrusted to guest conductors.
In some respects Payare, 41, is a perfectly modern maestro. Like many conductors of his generation, he usually conducts from memory. “It is better to have the score in the head and not the head in the score,” he says, citing a principle he learned from José Antonio Abreu, founder of the El Sistema program in Venezuela, of which he is a notable exponent.
Also in keeping with contemporary preferences, Payare opts for divided first and second violins, at least in Austro-German scores. “Mahler uses this kind of stereo sound,” he comments. “You have a diminuendo on one side and a crescendo on the other. This can be lost when you have the first and seconds in the same place.”
Some placement details will depend on how the hall sounds and the peculiar needs of an orchestra limited (at least while pandemic restrictions last) to 70 musicians. As for the Maison symphonique, Payare is a big fan.
“Musicians can really hear each other,” he says. “Which means they can take musical risks. Maybe we rehearse things this way, but we can take a turn [in performance]and do it another way. With the acoustics of the Maison symphonique, everyone will be aware of this. It can make every single performance absolutely alive.”
Payare heaps predictable praise on his new orchestra for its virtuosity and refinement but also identifies a rarer willingness to operate outside the usual boundaries. “One of the things I love about the OSM,” he says. “I felt this in the first rehearsal.”
There will be recordings. “I am not allowed to disclose things, but the OSM would not be the OSM without recordings,” he said in August. Cross-reference this comment with the astonishment he expressed in January at the nonexistence of an OSM Mahler cycle and it is not difficult to surmise what he has in mind.
Payare is bound to be compared with his compatriot and fellow El Sistema alumnus Gustavo Dudamel, 40, music and artistic director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. A more meaningful comparison in Montreal is with Yannick Nézet-Séguin, 46, music director for life of the Orchestre Métropolitain.
The arrival of Payare might require some perceptual adjustment. While the MSO remains the elder and larger of the two orchestras – not to mention the more productive in terms of concerts given Payare is much the less known conductor. So who now is the veteran and who the plucky upstart? And who, if and when concert life returns to normal, will excite the greater audience interest?
Payare is untroubled by the prospect of a rivalry. He does not know YNS personally but holds him in the highest esteem.
“This showcases the wonderful versatility of Montreal as a city,” Payare said. “If you look at Berlin, they have nine orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic and the Berlin Staatsoper, with Kirill Petrenko and Daniel Barenboim at the helms.
“With music there is no competition. It is about choices. And people can just enjoy.”
Classics prevail in Payare’s first OSM season
Rafael Payare will be in masterpiece mode for his inaugural season at the helm of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal.
The Venezuelan conductor’s indoor opening act on Sept. 14 comprises Shostakovich’s Fifth, arguably the most popular of all post-Mahler symphonies; Ravel’s La Valse, a venerable OSM showpiece; and Pierre Mercure’s Kaléidoscope, a Canadian favourite since its premiere by the OSM in 1948.
The closing concerts in May and June feature Beethoven’s Ninth.
“I would not say anything against this,” the 41-year-old said when it was put to him that a playlist including Brahms, Bruckner, Debussy and Sibelius reflects a fondness for great classics.
Montrealers are invited to expect more of the same. “The idea of the first season is to have a sneak peek at what we will be planning for the next five years,” Payare said.
However solid in character, the 2021-22 season is relatively compact. The tally of 62 concerts in the Maison symphonique is up from the 26 of COVID-ravaged 2020-21 but still considerably short of the 100 or so typical of a pre-COVID OSM season.
The lingering pandemic has other effects. Evening concerts start at 7:30 p.m. rather than 8. Concerts through February are given without intermission and mostly without printed programs. As for the crowd count, present measures allow the sale of a maximum of 958 tickets in a facility that seats 2,100 in the absence of a choir.
“When we had to program the season, we didn’t know what the situation would be,” explained OSM director of music programming Marianne Perron.
Payare’s 19 mainstage concerts over seven weeks – a workload that will double in 2022-23 – leave room for 16 guest conductors, including a few who were perceived to be competitors for the music director position. Russian-British Vasily Petrenko and the Frenchman Lionel Bringuier are on the podium in October.
In January Juanjo Mena, a Spaniard, is responsible for the only music by Mahler: Kindertotenlieder with the Scottish mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill. Payare promises more Mahler in future seasons.
Fans of mature maestros have options. Former San Francisco Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas – recovering at the moment from surgery to remove a brain tumour – returns in March for a two-program, five-concert residency including Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s Second and his own Poems of Emily Dickinson, with the Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman as soloist. Thomas turns 77 on Dec. 21.
Another distinguished senior citizen is Zubin Mehta, 85, who conducts a Wagner program on Feb. 5 with the American soprano Christine Goerke. This concert marks the 60th anniversary of the OSM’s first international tour, which was led by Mehta, a former music director.
In November the American David Zinman, also 85, conducts a pair of concerts featuring Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15. This is one of three 2021 programs offered – some weeks after the live performances – as $20 webcasts.
Curiously, Kent Nagano, who turns 70 on Nov. 22, is booked only for Christmas concerts with the francophone family entertainer Fred Pellerin. Nagano, like Mehta, holds the title of OSM conductor emeritus.
Another December offering, this one involving the OSM chorus, is Berlioz’s L’enfance du Christ with the Frenchman Hervé Niquet on the podium. Easter occasions two April performances of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion as led by the British early-music specialist Paul McCreesh.
Young conductors include Gemma New, Mélanie Léonard and Jordan de Souza. The latter two are Canadians making their OSM debuts. Leonard’s program, anchored by Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony, includes works by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1874-12) and Hannah Kendall (b. 1984), both composers of colour.
Pandemic notwithstanding, there is a balance of domestic and foreign soloists. Violinist Hilary Hahn and pianist Daniil Trifanov are among the notable imports.
Four new Canadian works will be heard, by Gabriel Thibaudeau, Dorothy Chang, Simon Bertrand and Ana Sokolović (who, like Tilson Thomas, is styled artist-in-residence). Thibaudeau’s contribution in April will be a new score for the 1923 silent film The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with an ensemble of OSM musicians sharing duties with OSM organist-in-residence Jean-Willy Kunz.
While making a good impression on audiences is surely foremost of Payare’s priorities, a music director has other responsibilities. Many vacancies in the orchestra need to be filled. There are six auditions in September alone.
“Personality,” Payare said when asked what he listens for. “The wow factor, which we know the OSM possesses.”
There are six chamber concerts in Bourgie Hall, starting on Sept. 29 with a program involving Payare. The OSM Pop series, led by former OSM assistant conductor Dina Gilbert, comprises two programs and six concerts, all in 2022 and all involving rap groups. Children’s programming includes an event designed for children with autism spectrum disorder.
Subscription options include a package of concerts involving Payare and a “Shostakovich & Co.” bundle focusing on Russian music. Subscriptions and webcasts are already for sale. The box office for single tickets opens Sept. 7 at noon.
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