Meet Our Music Director

Introducing the next Music Director of the San Diego Symphony – Rafael Payare

The San Diego Symphony's new music director is Rafael Payare. 

Rafael Payare began his role as the music director of the San Diego Symphony on July 1, 2019. Payare made his debut as music director designate of the Orchestra in January 2019, when he kicked off the fourth annual San Diego Symphony January festival. His first concerts as San Diego Symphony Music Director will be in October of 2019 at the Jacobs Music Center's Copley Symphony Hall.

As the San Diego Symphony’s music director, Payare – formerly music director of the Ulster Orchestra, principal conductor of the Castleton Festival and honorary conductor of Sinfonietta Cracovia – succeeds Maestro Jahja Ling, whose tenure began in 2004-05 and culminated in the 2016-17 season. Payare will conduct the San Diego Symphony for ten weeks each season, including expected appearances in the Bayside Summer Nights season at the orchestra’s summer home, Bayside Performance Park at Embarcadero Marina Park South.

Since being awarded first prize at the Malko Conducting Competition in 2012, Payare is celebrated as one of the most exciting conductors of his generation and has made debuts with: the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony, Cincinnati Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Minnesota Orchestra, Vienna Philharmonic, London Symphony, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Munich Philharmonic, Rotterdam Philharmonic, City of Birmingham Symphony, Oslo Philharmonic, Gothenburg Symphony, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, amongst others.

“When Rafael conducted the orchestra in January 2018 there was a deep connection, and the musical bond and obvious potential for their relationship was clear,” said Martha Gilmer, San Diego Symphony CEO. “I first heard about Rafael Payare because of the unique musical relationship he had with the preeminent conductor, Lorin Maazel. Lorin was an intellectual musician with discerning taste. That he recognized Rafael’s talent and innate musicianship was an affirmation for me of Rafael’s considerable gift. He has the perfect balance of bringing out the best in the musicians, encouraging and leading them to achieve more than they imagine possible. Rafael has a calm assurance on the podium. The musicians spoke of their ability to take artistic risks knowing that he was secure in his own vision and knowledge of the score. I could not be more excited about this musical partnership.”

When Rafael conducted the orchestra in January there was a deep connection with the orchestra, and the musical bond and obvious potential for their relationship was clear. I could not be more excited about this musical partnership. —Martha Gilmer, San Diego Symphony CEO



The 2020-21 season marks Rafael Payare’s second season as Music Director of San Diego Symphony, and already their relationship has been recognized as one of the most dynamic in North America. He has also recently been announced as the next Music Director of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal where he will take the title of Music Director Designate from September 2021 and will commence as Music Director from the 2022-23 season for an initial period of five years. His profound musicianship, technical brilliance and charismatic presence on the podium has elevated him as one of the most sought-after conductors. He was Principal Conductor and Music Director of the Ulster Orchestra from 2014-19 with whom he appeared twice at the BBC Proms in 2016 and 2019. The Orchestra recently named him Conductor Laureate in recognition of his vast artistic contribution to the Orchestra and City of Belfast during his five year tenure.

A highlight of the 2020-21 season will include a live recording of Strauss’ Don Quixote with the Philharmonia Orchestra for the Pentatone label with his wife, the cellist Alisa Weilerstein. Other highlights during the current season will include North American debuts with the Philadelphia Orchestra and San Francisco Symphony Orchestra as well as a return to the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal for a two-week residency. In Europe, he will debut with the Orchestre National de France in Paris and will return to the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, Dresden Philharmonie and Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. Soloists with whom he has enjoyed collaborations include Daniil Trifonov, Frank Peter Zimmerman, Gil Shaham, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Nikolai Lugansky, Christiane Karg, Alisa Weilerstein, Nikolaj Znaider, Piotr Anderszewski, Elisabeth Leonskaja, Sergey Khachatryan, Emmanuel Ax, Yefim Bronfman and Dorothea Röschmann.

As an opera conductor, he made his acclaimed debut at Glyndebourne Festival in 2019 conducting Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia and has conducted Madame Butterfly and La bohème for Royal Swedish Opera and a new production of La traviata at Malmo Opera. During the 2020-21 season, he will make his debut at the Staatsoper Berlin conducting La bohème. In July 2012, he was personally invited by his mentor, the late Lorin Maazel, to conduct at his Castleton Festival in Virginia, and in July 2015 he was appointed Principal Conductor and conducted performances of Gounod’s Romeo and Juliette and a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in memory of Lorin Maazel.

Born in 1980 and a graduate of the celebrated El Sistema in Venezuela, Mr. Payare began his formal conducting studies in 2004 with José Antonio Abreu. He has conducted all the major orchestras in Venezuela, including the Simón Bolívar Orchestra. Having also served as Principal Horn of the Simón Bolívar Orchestra, he took part in many prestigious tours and recordings with conductors including Giuseppe Sinopoli, Claudio Abbado, Sir Simon Rattle and Lorin Maazel.

In May 2012, Rafael Payare was awarded first prize at the Malko International Conducting Competition.

Rafael Payare recently conducted the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 5. Check it out: