With his innate musicianship, charismatic energy, gift for communication and irresistibly joyous spirit, Venezuelan conductor Rafael Payare is “electrifying in front of an orchestra” (Los Angeles Times). The 2023-24 season marks his second as Music Director of Canada’s Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (Montreal Symphony Orchestra/OSM) and his fifth as Music Director of California’s San Diego Symphony (SDS). Other current positions are Principal Conductor of Virginia’s Castleton Festival, a post he has held since 2015, and Conductor Laureate of Northern Ireland’s Ulster Orchestra, where he was Principal Conductor and Music Director from 2014 to 2019, making multiple appearances at London’s BBC Proms.
OSM celebrates its 90th anniversary in the 2023-24 season. As well as continuing their ongoing exploration of Mahler’s music with accounts of the composer’s First and Seventh Symphonies, he and the orchestra perform repertoire ranging from Beethoven’s First to such modern masterpieces as Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass and Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie. In the fifth season of his transformative tenure as Music Director of the San Diego Symphony, Payare conducts the SDS’s first appearance in a full decade at Carnegie Hall; leads all three of its programs at the inaugural California Festival, a statewide celebration of new music featuring works by more than 100 contemporary composers performed by 95 organizations; conducts the orchestra’s appearance at Centro Cultural Tijuana’s annual Día de los Muertos Festival; and leads the 2024 grand reopening of the Jacobs Music Center, San Diego Symphony’s newly renovated indoor home. After making his Staatskapelle Berlin debut with concerts launching the orchestra’s new season and at the 2023 Musikfest Berlin, he returns to conduct Turandot at the Berlin State Opera in July 2024. He also makes his debut with the Orchestre national de France, and returns to the prestigious podiums of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Tonhalle-Orchester and Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. With both the Swiss and Swedish ensembles, his programs feature Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, as heard alongside Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder on his new recording with OSM, which is due for release by Pentatone in early 2024.
These engagements follow Payare’s banner 2022–23 season. After inaugurating his Montreal appointment with a season-opening account of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony, he led the OSM on two major international tours, highlighted by the orchestra’s debut at London’s Southbank Centre and its returns to the Vienna Konzerthaus, Brussels’s BOZAR, New York’s Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Issued in March, his Pentatone recording of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with OSM was named an Editor’s Choice by both Gramophone and BBC Music magazines. Payare was similarly successful with the San Diego Symphony, giving eight weeks of concerts with the orchestra last season after three of his most noteworthy SDS triumphs to date; his commercial album debut with Platoon’s 2022 release of Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony, “The Year 1905”; a multi-week tour of San Diego county in 2022; and their 2021 concert for the opening of The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, the orchestra’s stunning new open-air venue, which wowed the national press. As a guest conductor, last season saw Payare make debuts with the New York Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony, as well as at London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, where he led Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia. Besides returning to the podiums of the Cleveland Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra and Munich Philharmonic, he made his Edinburgh Festival debut with Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra and reunited with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for acclaimed accounts of Brahms’s First Symphony.
Since winning first prize at Denmark’s Malko Competition for Young Conductors in 2012, Payare has made debuts and forged longstanding relationships with many of the world’s preeminent orchestras. His U.S. collaborations include engagements with the Boston Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, Houston Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra, while his notable European appearances include dates with the Bavarian Radio Symphony, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Munich Philharmonic, NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra, Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich and Vienna Philharmonic, which he has led at the Vienna Konzerthaus and Musikverein; on a Baltic tour; and at Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Payare has undertaken concerto collaborations with soloists including Piotr Anderszewski, Emmanuel Ax, Yefim Bronfman, Elīna Garanča, Sergey Khachatryan, Gil Shaham, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Daniil Trifonov, Alisa Weilerstein, Frank Peter Zimmermann and Nikolaj Znaider. Also a dedicated opera conductor, before appearing at Covent Garden he made his celebrated Glyndebourne Festival debut with a 2019 production of Il barbiere di Siviglia, as well as leading Madama Butterfly and La bohème at Stockholm’s Royal Swedish Opera, Tosca at the Royal Danish Opera, Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette at the Castleton Festival, and a new production of La traviata in Malmö, Sweden.
Born in Barcelona, Venezuela, in 1980, Payare first discovered classical music at the age of 14, when he began playing horn in the El Sistema program. After just three weeks he joined the Symphony Orchestra of Anzoátegui, before becoming part of the National Children’s Orchestra of Venezuela, with which he toured Europe, Asia and the Americas. From 2001 to 2012 he served as Principal Horn of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, taking part in prestigious tours and recordings with Gustavo Dudamel and other eminent conductors including Claudio Abbado, Lorin Maazel, Sir Simon Rattle and Giuseppe Sinopoli, who first inspired Payare to conduct himself. Receiving conducting training from El Sistema founder José Antonio Abreu and from subsequent mentors Maazel and Krzysztof Penderecki, Payare went on to lead all of Venezuela’s major orchestras. Today he is himself an inspiration to younger musicians, continuing his long-standing involvement with El Sistema and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra and enjoying a close relationship with London’s Royal College of Music, where he conducts the symphony orchestra each season. He has also led youth projects with the Chicago Civic Orchestra, Orchestra of the Americas, and Filarmónica Joven de Colombia, and conducted a tour with the National Youth Orchestra of Ireland.