San Diego Symphony’s Rafael Payare named music director for Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal


San Diego Symphony music director Rafael Payare, whose contract was extended last fall through the 2025-26 season, just got busier: He’s been named the new music director for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.

The Venezuelan conductor, whose 2019 arrival in San Diego was heralded as the start of a new era for the city’s now 110-year-old orchestra, is expected to officially begin in Montreal in 2022. Starting Sept. 1, he will take on the title of music director designate for the Montreal ensemble, more popularly known as Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (OSM).

With his appointment, announced Thursday morning, Payare becomes the Canadian orchestra’s ninth music director, taking over the post from Kent Nagano, a Berkeley-born conductor who has led the ensemble since 2006. Nagano has also been music director of the Hamburg State Opera since 2015.

In the world of classical music, it is not unusual for conductors to serve simultaneous posts, and on Thursday, Payare acknowledged both institutions in a statement released by the San Diego Symphony.

“To be able to have two great orchestras is something that gives me enormous joy and pleasure,” Payare, 40, said. “For me personally, it means that my family and I will be in two incredible, vibrant cities making music at the highest level for more than 20 weeks per year. I look forward to connecting these two beautiful cities and these two important ensembles, and the projects we can develop together.”

Martha Gilmer, CEO of the San Diego Symphony, echoed Payare’s sentiments.

“This is very exciting news for Rafael and us,” she said. “After our first encounter with Rafael, we knew that he possessed the talent to become one of the most esteemed and profound conductors of our time, and now, he is deepening his impact in our musical world. The Montreal Symphony and the San Diego Symphony each had extensive music director searches. They came to the same and excellent conclusion that Rafael was uniquely qualified and the ideal choice for our respective orchestras.”

Payare — whose appointment was unanimously endorsed by an 11-member selection committee — made his conducting debut with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra in 2018 and returned in 2019. His appointment makes him the first conductor from South America to hold the position with the Canadian ensemble, founded in 1934 as Les Concerts Symphoniques.

“Today’s announcement is the result of rigorous efforts that began in 2017 to choose a successor for Kent Nagano, who did not wish to renew his contract at the end of the 2019-2020 season,” Suzanne Fortier, chair of the selection committee, said in a statement Thursday.

“Based on solid selection criteria, our search was global in scope. It was an honor for me to chair this committee, and I’m very happy with the result. We were able to identify a candidate of the highest quality, Rafael Payare, whom we unanimously recommended to the OSM’s Executive Committee and Board of Directors.”

Madeleine Careau, CEO of the Montreal orchestra, praised Payare’s style, which is deeply rooted in community engagement.

“Rafael Payare’s passion, energy and determination, his Latin roots and his engaging personality are attributes that will undoubtedly appeal to Montreal audiences, especially since our next music director is driven by a strong desire to get involved in the community,” she said. “His talent, creativity and leadership will help the OSM continue to shine on the world stage, whether on tour or through recordings adapted to different broadcast platforms.”

“It’s an immense honor and a pleasure to have been chosen as the next music director of the fantastic Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal,” Payare said in a statement released by the Canadian orchestra. “To be given the opportunity to work, create and explore new musical possibilities with the wonderful group of artists that is the OSM is a hugely exciting prospect. It is my heartfelt wish that, in close synergy with the musicians, we can give the OSM’s audience many moments of joy, pride and hope.”

The Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal — like the San Diego Symphony and many orchestras around the globe — has mostly been silenced by the coronavirus pandemic, shifting to virtual programming until live in-person performances are deemed safe once again.

As such, an upcoming concert by the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, conducted by Payare, will be broadcast on the web for free. Scheduled for Sunday, Jan. 10, it will feature Berlioz’s Roman Carnival and Brahms’ Symphony No 1. To watch it, visit


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