Rafael Payare will reorchestrate the music scene in Montreal

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He has the hair. He has the flair. A Venezuelan who lives in Berlin, Rafael Payare has the international cachet that can fairly be deemed a vital prerequisite for a music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.

He does not have the French, although acquiring it is a high priority. Presumably Payare will make progress by 2022-23, when he is installed officially in the position, armed with a substantial initial contract of five years.

What happens between now and then is clouded by post-COVID uncertainty, but Payare will be styled music director designate as of September. He might be said to assume that role informally on Sunday afternoon, when he leads the MSO in a free webcast. 

This concert, coupling Berlioz and Brahms, emanates live from the Maison symphonique, after rehearsals Friday and Saturday. As the timetable implies in the pandemic era, Payare passed the holiday season in Quebec with this wife, the noted American cellist Alisa Weilerstein, and their daughter, Ariadne. Two weeks of woodsy quarantine in the Eastern Townships followed by two weeks in town. This alone shows dedication.

“I’m very excited and motivated to explore Québécois culture,” Payare said from the MSO offices, all but echoing his predecessor, Kent Nagano, who arrived as music director in 2006 and left the position officially at the end of August. (No word on whether the American conductor left his Canadiens jersey behind.)

Payare has visited Quebec before. By all accounts his 2018 MSO debut in Montreal was a success, as was a follow-up at the Lanaudière Festival in the summer of 2019.

Most of his concerts go well, to judge by reviews. “He had its inner workings in his fingertips,” Lawrence B. Johnson said of a 2018 performance with the Chicago Symphony of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. “No broad-brush painting here.” 

The critics who really count, of course, are the music executives who issue invitations. At 40 – young in conductor years – Payare has led the high-end likes of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Czech Philharmonic, Gewandhaus Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra and Los Angeles Philharmonic. Take note of return engagements with the Vienna Philharmonic and Munich Philharmonic. These ensembles do not suffer fools gladly.

Back in Montreal, Payare’s nomination ticks a few boxes. As a product of El Sistema, the music-for-all education program in Venezuela, the conductor arrives with a firm sense of classical music as a democratic, across-the-board phenomenon. “Music is a right, not a privilege,” he says. “Everybody should have access.”

It is helpful that Payare has experience as a music director, with all the managerial duties the position implies. The Ulster Orchestra accorded him the lordly title of conductor laureate in 2019 after a stint of only five years. In the same year he became music director of the San Diego Symphony, which last October extended his contract through 2025-26.

“Not a problem,” Payare says of the double duty. “Two different coasts.” Even the European component of his career (which includes opera) can be sustained.

The conductor’s portfolio is not well stocked with recordings. Yet perhaps this can be counted an advantage. Nagano arrived with a huge discography and substantial European commitments. For Payare the skies are clear.

Is the 100-plus discography of the MSO itself an obstacle? Decca recordings of the 1980s and 90s still get airplay.  

“Those recordings by Maestro [Charles] Dutoit are fantastic but that does not mean we could not record that repertoire as well,” Payare said. “It is important to put onto recordings what the stage of the orchestra is at this moment and moving forward.”

At any rate, there are some notable lacunas. “An orchestra like the MSO without a Mahler cycle!” Payare exclaimed. “This is one of things we will explore. And Strauss symphonic poems. I love Strauss.”

Asked what other composers might be close to his heart, he rattled off a roll call of canonical masters. “Sorry,” he said, after repeating a few names. “That didn’t really answer your question.”

The list at least makes clear that Payare is a devotee of great repertoire as it is traditionally understood, and not a rocker wannabe. Baroque music? “I cannot say that I am a specialist,” he said about the historical practice movement. In a city where baroque musicians virtually grow on trees, it is not a fatal flaw. 

Payare is bound to be compared with his compatriot and fellow El Sistema alumnus Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. A more meaningful comparison in Montreal is with Yannick Nézet-Séguin, 45, music director for life of the Orchestre Métropolitain. 

The arrival of Payare disrupts the established dynamic in town. While the MSO remains the elder and larger of the two orchestras, Payare is much the less known conductor. So who is now 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.” 

Rafael Payare conducts the MSO in Berlioz’s Le Carnaval Romain and Brahms’s First Symphony Sunday Jan. 10 starting at 2:30 p.m. The concert is available until Jan. 17 at www.osm.ca and for 90 days at www.medici.tv.

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Arthur Kaptainis has been a classical music critic since 1986. His articles have appeared in Classical Voice North America and La Scena Musicale as well as Musical Toronto. Arthur holds an MA in musicology from the University of Toronto. Since 2019, Arthur is co-editor of La Scena Musicale.

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