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Rafael Payare brings vigor to San Diego’s oldest orchestra

As the Symphony's 2019-2020 season enters its third month, most notable are the rave reviews it is getting under its new music director, Rafael Payare.

Rafael Payare

The San Diego Symphony performed its first concert 109 years ago on December 6, 1910, making it the oldest orchestra in California. Copley Symphony Hall in the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Music Center, the orchestra’s home since 1984, turned 90 this year, having originally been built as The Fox Theatre movie palace in 1929. The Symphony has a long and illustrious history, but as the 2019-2020 season enters its third month, most notable are the rave reviews it is getting under its new music director, Rafael Payare.

Payare succeeds Maestro Jahja Ling, who retired from his full-time responsibilities at the end of the 2017 season. Ling spent 13 years as music director, building the San Diego Symphony into one of the finest orchestras in the country, and the symphony board considered 21 prospective successors, according to Martha Gilmer, San Diego Symphony CEO. Still, “there was a deep connection” when Payare made his debut with the orchestra as guest conductor in January 2018. “The musical bond and obvious potential for [the] relationship was clear,” Gilmer says.

The now 39-year-old Payare took first prize in the Nicolai Malko Competition for Young Conductors in 2012, since which time he has been one of the most sought-after conductors in the world. Among those impressed was the legendary American conductor Lorin Maazel, and Gilmer mentions Maazel’s appreciation as one of the factors that solidified her belief in Payare’s ability. When Maazel died in 2014 with performances still scheduled, Payare was asked to conduct in his place — a tremendous honor. At the same time, Gilmer says, “The musicians spoke of their ability to take artistic risks knowing that [Payare] was secure in his own vision and knowledge of the score.”

Rafael Payare
Rafael Payare

That mastery has been on full display this season in the long lines, sold-out concerts, and glowing reviews Payare and the orchestra have received for their performances of Mahler, Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven.

Indeed, Beethoven figures prominently in the coming year, as 2020 marks the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, and Principal Guest Conductor Edo de Waart celebrates the occasion with four festival programs in January.

But, it is not simply the classical repertoire at which the orchestra excels; the San Diego Symphony offers more than 120 concerts annually, including the Jacobs Masterworks series, Christmas concerts, and programs as varied as Casablanca in Concert to Beethoven vs. Coldplay. Whatever the program, the performance is sure to be superb and the surroundings inspiring, whether at Copley Symphony Hall or the Orchestra’s new permanent summer home at Bayside Performance Park, opening next year.

The San Diego Symphony — 109 and thriving. sandiegosymphony.org


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