New Montreal Maestro Shows Flair For Basics (But Maybe Not French)

Rafael Payare conducting the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal at the Maison symphonique during his public debut as music director designate. (Photos by Antoine Saito)

MONTREAL — Rafael Payare has had a few encounters with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. The first was in 2018, when a guest appearance got the authorities thinking about this energetic El Sistema alumnus as a potential successor to Kent Nagano as music director. In January came a triptych of online concerts following the announcement of his appointment starting 2022-23.

A free outdoor concert on Sept. 9 at Montreal’s Olympic Park marked Payare’s public debut as music director-designate. Surpassing this in significance, however, was the season opener Sept. 14 in the Maison symphonique, where the 41-year-old Venezuelan is contracted to make music through 2026-27. The ovation with which he was greeted before giving a downbeat was justified in the end by an affirmative performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. 

This is one of the great unscrewupables of the standard repertoire, a score so clear in dramatic trajectory and masterful in detail that it would take an act of sabotage to avert a success. Still, performances range from good to excellent in value, and Payare managed to oversee something on the latter side of the ledger.

Payare led a socially distanced ensemble in a socially distanced concert hall.

He did so by respecting, or making the most of, the character of the OSM as an ensemble that produces a burnished sound at all dynamic levels. There are not a few raucous climaxes in the Fifth, and some of these struck me as louder than anything I heard during the 16-year Nagano era. Possibly the spread-out seating of 82 players on an extended stage or the COVID-mandated half-house of 958 had a magnifying effect on acoustics. Yet loud as they were, the sounds were never ugly. Even the march sequence of the first movement did not land harshly on the ear. As for the galumphing triple-meter Allegretto, it seemed grand, not grotesque. A full-bodied Russian bear, to be sure, but humorous rather than menacing.

Exacting pizzicato in this movement indicated that the orchestra had not lost its technical edge. Nevertheless, the quiet passages made the deepest effect, when Payare traded his spidery calisthenics for a repertoire of gestures more geared to the strike zone. The purity of the long-breathed second theme of the first movement said something positive about the OSM violins and, in the reprise, the violas. Indeed, all the strings distinguished themselves in the Largo, where they are divided into eight parts. Nothing about the sonority of the “third” violins at the back of the section suggested any hierarchy of quality.

Winds were sweet and plaintive. The harp added a plucky reminder that with inner contemplation come touches of regret. Of course the thoughtfulness of this great slow movement was destined to be subsumed in a blaze of brass — all of it here appropriately focused, even if the trumpet theme sounded more embedded in the texture than it usually does.

The Orchestre symphonique de Montréal performing under its music director designate.

Whether this much-discussed finale reflects a sincere or ironic “Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism” is a question no performance can conclusively answer. Suffice it to say that Payare made the conclusion satisfying on a purely sonic plane, with some audio (or audio-visual) support from an octobass, the 11-foot-plus acoustic subwoofer viewed with affection by Berlioz and, more recently, Nagano, who oversaw the OSM’s acquisition of three of the beasts.

This was a straight-through program comprising about 70 minutes of music, not including speeches, announcements, tuning sessions, and ovations. Canadian content came in the form of Pierre Mercure’s Kaléidoscope, a 1948 essay in catchy rhythm and lavish color that might be compared with Appalachian Spring in its status as a pillar of the national repertoire. The OSM performance reminded us of its many virtues.

First up was Ravel’s La Valse, an OSM standard since the days of Charles Dutoit. Payare established the low-register pulse of the opening nicely but let the volume rise too quickly, leaving behind much of the dreamy magic of this poème chorégraphique. It was interesting that Payare, whose avowed preference is to conduct from memory, had the score in front of him for this. Long-limbed gestures suggested an anxious reach for a conception that had not yet taken shape.

Payare and the orchestra basking in the return to live indoor concerts.

That might be a rough judgment, but there are grounds to wonder whether Payare is fully briefed in the repertoire that made the OSM famous. His first season is heavy on the hits — Beethoven 9, Brahms 2, Bruckner 7, Sibelius 1 — and light on exploration. Four Canadian commissions are all entrusted to guest conductors. Baroque music is not his thing. Paul McCreesh is imported in April to conduct Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Nagano would never have ceded control of such a masterpiece.

If Payare’s taste is for the basics, this might align with the preferences of an audience that has waited patiently for symphonic nourishment. To judge by this inaugural Shostakovich performance, the multitudes will be fed.

A repeat performance of this program can be seen on Sept. 18 at 2:30 p.m. on Mezzo Live HD or as an archived webcast from Oct. 5 through Nov. 2 at