San Diego Symphony’s Rafael Payare will make New York Philharmonic conducting debut, capping his banner year

San Diego Symphony music director Rafael Payare at The Rady Shell, Oct. 6, 2022
“Music and my family are my passions,” says San Diego Symphony Music Director Rafael Payare. He is shown here during an October rehearsal at The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, the orchestra’s $85 million outdoor concert venue.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The globe-trotting Venezuelan orchestra leader, just back from his latest European tour, is excited to soon take his first bite of the Big Apple


Can Rafael Payare possibly top what has already been a banner year of firsts for the charismatic Venezuelan conductor?

“There have been tons of things happening. Music and my family are my passions,” affirmed Payare, who has enjoyed landmark achievements on both fronts in 2022.

This fall marks the start of his fourth season as the music director of the San Diego Symphony. It is also marks the start of his first season leading the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, whose previous music director — the renowned Kent Nagano — held that coveted position from 2006 to 2020.

“We did a worldwide search and Rafael is exactly the person we needed to replace Kent. Rafael will take us into a new musical era,” said Madeleine Careau, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra’s veteran CEO.

“I went to see him conduct a couple of times in San Diego when we were doing our search to replace Kent. And something (special) happened when he stood in front of the orchestra.”

Payare completed his first joint European concert tour with the Montreal Symphony — the 57th in the orchestra’s history — at London’s Royal Festival Hall on Oct. 28.

He will conduct the San Diego Symphony Saturday, Sunday and Thursday at the year-old Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, the symphony’s eye-popping $85 million outdoor venue. Payare and the orchestra also performed there last night. In addition, he will lead them in concert Friday at California Center for the Arts, Escondido.

This weekend’s two concerts open the symphony’s 2022-23 Jacobs Masterworks season, which includes 32 performances at seven venues across San Diego County. The three November kickoff concerts at The Shell will mark Payare’s 10th, 11th and 12th performances this year at the venue, where — on Oct. 1 and 2 — he conducted Verdi’s Requiem for the first time in his career.

The Requiem performances were hailed as “thrilling” and “chock-full of emotion” in The San Diego Union-Tribune’s rave review. It hailed Payare for his “no-holds-barred interpretation” of Verdi’s epic masterwork, which teamed the symphony with the San Diego Master Chorale.

Extraordinary vocal soloists and no-holds-barred playing wow audience

Oct. 3, 2022

In another first, Payare made his debut conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra in November, while May saw the release of his first album with the San Diego Symphony. It showcases a bravura performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11: “The Year 1905.”

Aug. 6, 2021 Rafael Payare conducts the San Diego Symphony at The Rady Shell
San Diego Symphony Music Director Rafael Payare is shown conducting the orchestra at the opening concert of The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park on Aug. 6, 2021.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Headed to New York

For good measure, Payare’s debut album with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra — the first they have recorded together in an upcoming cycle of Mahler symphonies — has been recorded and will be released in March.

“Every year I conduct symphonies by Shostakovich and Mahler and I always have,” he said. “It’s fantastic to make albums of their music in San Diego and Montreal.”

However, all these heady 2022 achievements were overshadowed by a very special joint undertaking by Payare and his wife, internationally celebrated cellist Alisa Weilerstein.

“Our second daughter, Elina, was born in January and our older daughter, Ariadna, is in first grade,” he said proudly. “We are very, very happy.”

She will team with husband, music director Rafael Payare, for season-closing concerts at The Rady Shell

May 22, 2022

But 2022 is not over yet.

And while nothing can top the birth of a new family member, Payare does have another musical first coming up soon. It caps off what has been the biggest year in his career, thus far, with a little pomp and a lot of circumstance.

The first three days in December will see Payare conducting the New York Philharmonic for the first time in his career. The concerts will take place in David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center, which reopened Oct. 8 after undergoing a $550 million renovation that took three years. (Paul Scarborough, the acoustician who oversaw the Geffen Hall rebuild, is playing a key role in the ongoing $125 million renovation of Jacobs Music Center and Copley Symphony Hall.)

The project will combine historical preservation and a state-of-the art reinvention of the 93-year-old venue, which opened in 1929 as the Fox Theater

Feb. 23, 2022

Payare’s New York repertoire will include Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 19, with Emanuel Ax as the soloist, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 12 in D minor, Op. 112, “The Year 1917.” He will also perform both those pieces Saturday and Sunday at The Shell with the San Diego Symphony and Ax as the piano soloist.

Even for an award-winning conductor like the 42-year-old Payare, who had conducted some of the world’s most esteemed orchestras, leading the New York Philharmonic on its brand-new hometown stage marks a fresh threshold.

Rafael Payare and Alisa Weilerstein, San Diego, April 3, 2020
Rafael Payare and his wife, noted cellist Alisa Weilerstein, are shown in the garden of their San Diego home. “It’s huge,” says Weilerstein of Payare’s upcoming December debut concerts conducting the New York Philharmonic.
(Jarrod Valliere / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

‘Icing on the cake’

“Any conductor in the world would be just waiting for that phone call to conduct the New York Phil,” said San Diego Symphony concertmaster Jeff Thayer.

“To make a sports analogy, it’s like getting to coach the Yankees. Rafael’s career is really blossoming and taking off around the world right now. Conducting the New York Phil, boy, that’s like the icing on the cake!”

Those sentiments are shared by San Diego Symphony CEO Martha Gilmer and Montreal Symphony CEO Careau.

“We’re thrilled,” said Gilmer, who will attend the December New York concerts with some of the San Diego Symphony’s most devoted supporters.

“When you are so in demand to conduct the top orchestras, like Rafael is, that speaks volumes. And wherever he goes, the name ‘San Diego Symphony’ goes with him, so it’s really exciting for us. The success he is having here with this orchestra is no secret and the word is out.”

Careau also regards Payare’s upcoming debut with the New York Philharmonic as a headline-commanding signifier of his rising stature in the classical-music world.

“It’s important, and it’s fantastic,” Careau said, speaking from her Montreal office.

“We have done 50 concerts in New York over the years and have three coming up in March at Carnegie Hall with Rafael. So, if he is a hit in December with the New York Phil — which I think he will be — it will be good for us.”

The excitement about Payare’s Big Apple debut next month is clearly palpable among his associates.

But exactly how excited are he and his wife, cellist Weilerstein, about his upcoming concerts leading the New York Philharmonic at Geffen Hall?

“It’s wonderful!” Payare said. “They have just opened their new concert hall, and it’s the biggest orchestra in the world, the one Leonard Bernstein conducted for so many years. I’ll be doing Shostakovich’s 12th symphony with them.”

He chuckled.

“Funnily enough,” Payare noted, “the New York Philharmonic — which is 180 years old — has never played Shostakovich’s 12th before, which is kind of unbelievable. So, I’m even more excited to be doing this.”

“It’s huge,” agreed Weilerstein, who has performed multiple times as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic.

“It’s kind of a culmination of so many things and the beginning of so many things. But we don’t think of it in terms of ‘achievement.’ It’s a matter of: ‘How are we growing artistically, and also personally? That’s really where both of us are very aligned. We think in very similar ways.”

Given the number of times Weilerstein has soloed with the Philharmonic in New York, has she offered her husband any suggestions or insider’s observations?

“No,” she replied, laughing. “He doesn’t need my advice, or anyone else’s. He’ll be fine!”

San Diego Symphony's Rafael Payare during a rehearsal at The Shell, Oct. 6, 2022
“Having an orchestra is like having an instuument made of 85 or 90 human beings,” says San Diego Symphony Music Director Rafael Payare. He is shown here at an Oct. 6 rehearsal at The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, the symphony’s $85 million outdoor venue.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

‘A little like voodoo!’

The art of conducting requires a combination of skills.

With or without a baton to lead an orchestra, the conductor sets the tempo, guides the musicians and brings each score to life anew at each concert.

She or he must listen intently to what each section of the orchestra is doing and help hone and tweak the feel, the inflections and the dynamics. And the conductor must find a balance between guiding the musicians to achieve a unified sound and collective focus, while encouraging them to express themselves and create something unique in each composition.

During rehearsals, a conductor can offer spoken observations, suggest adjustments and impart their vision of precisely how they want — or don’t want — the music to sound.

But on stage in concert, even the most physically vigorous conductors are essentially silent, apart from breathing and turning the pages of a score.

“It sounds a little like voodoo!” Payare said. “Because we do not produce sound, but every conductor has a way of making the musicians sound different.”

Asked to cite his most important conducting mentor, Payare immediately credited José Antonio Abreu, who died in 2018 at the age of 78.

Abreu was the founder of Venezuela’s famed El Sistema, a music education system that focused on addressing poverty by providing music lessons and performance opportunities. El Sistema has since been emulated in other countries, including Scotland, and Payare hopes to launch a cross-border version in the San Diego-Tijuana region.

In 2004, Abreu began giving Payare — then the principal French horn player in Venezuela’s acclaimed Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra — private conducting lessons.

“He had seen me do concerts in different cities with my brass ensemble and thought I had certain qualities that would be good for a conductor,” said Payare, whose career ascended after he won first prize at Denmark’s prestigious Malko International Conducting Competition in 2012.

“The most important thing Abreu taught me is how to approach the music, the score, and then how you can express that (to an orchestra) with your hands. And that the less you talk, the better! Abreu was world-famous for not saying much in rehearsal. But you could always see his intensity in his eyes.”

Coincidentally or not, intensity is a quality Payare is often cited for bringing to the music he is conducting. So much so, in fact, that the Montreal Symphony Orchestra is using the phrase “Driven by intensity!” on billboards and posters in its marketing campaign for Payare’s first season in the Canadian metropolis.

“We did a tour of South Korea with Rafael this summer, and he got everyone excited and amped up,” said Austin Howle, the Montreal orchestra’s principal tuba player.

“He brings a lot of life and energy to the music and allows us to make the music we really want to make. We could really feel excitement the first time he conducted us, and so could the audience.”

Those sentiments are shared by San Diego Symphony concertmaster Thayer.

“I think all my colleagues would agree Rafael brings a lot of energy and excitement to whatever he is performing, and that he demands that of us,” Thayer said.

“He’s a very physical conductor and is quite a limber guy. He shows a lot of energy, when it’s called for, and I think we respond.”

In turn, Payare regards the physicality of his conducting as an embodiment of the music itself.

“It’s about what your body can let out and (project) for the music,” he said. “The more you know about the music, the more you can internalize the music — and the body has a way to show it.”

Regardless of what city or country he is in, Payare’s artistic goal is the same with any orchestra.

“We try to be very truthful to the score,” he said, before making an important distinction about letting the music breathe and take flight each night.

“Every single time we are on stage, it’s different,” he stressed. “No two (back-to-back) concerts are the same, not even two rehearsals. Because this is not static music; it’s always evolving. It’s like when you are in the ocean or a river — you will get wet, but no two particles of water are the same.

“That’s the beautiful thing with music. It doesn’t matter how well you know a piece, you can always find something new. Having an orchestra is like having an instrument made of 85 or 90 human beings. It will never be the same.

“It’s like reading a poem. You can see it on the page, but how it sounds and what it means depends on how you read it and what is happening at that moment in your life.”

It remains to be seen if Payare’s pending Big Apple concert debut will lead to him becoming “king of the hill, top of the heap,” to quote a line from the enduring Frank Sinatra hit, “New York, New York.”

“Well, you can hope!” Payare said.

“I look forward to expanding my relationships with both orchestras, San Diego and Montréal, and to going on tour with both so people can hear how wonderful they are.

“No one can say that I planned any of this or that everything is ‘going according to plan.’ But I couldn’t be happier that things are the way they are. I’m just 42 and hope I can do this for many more decades.”

San Diego Symphony: Emanuel Ax Plays Beethoven

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 12 and 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 13

Where: The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, 200 Marina Park Way, downtown

Tickets: $25-$108

Phone: (619) 235-0804


San Diego Symphony: Payare Leads Brahms’ Symphony No. 1

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 17

Where: The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, 200 Marina Park Way, downtown

Tickets: $25-$108

Phone: (619) 235-0804


San Diego Symphony: Payare Leads Brahms’ Symphony No. 1

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 18

Where: California Center for the Arts, Escondido, 340 North Escondido Blvd., Escondido

Tickets: $25-$70

Phone: (619) 235-0804